City to take down billboards mayor deems inappropriate

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Associated Press Writer

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A billboard a few blocks south of Busch Stadium shows two shirtless black men embracing. The caption reads: "Brothers Loving Brothers Safely." It includes a number to call for information on getting tested for HIV and AIDS.

That is one of at least four billboards that was deemed inappropriate Tuesday by Mayor Francis Slay. The city has ordered the billboards to be taken down immediately, said Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford.

The billboards are part of a St. Louis-area campaign to increase AIDS and HIV awareness. Rainford said there are 11 or 12 billboards in the campaign, but only those four are coming down -- including one that shows a rolled-up condom.

"That may be appropriate for a magazine, that may be appropriate for a newspaper, but that's not appropriate for a residential neighborhood," Rainford said.

The city has spent $68,000 on the campaign.

"If this wasn't taxpayer money, we wouldn't be getting into all of this," Rainford said. "It wouldn't be any of our business."

A mix-up in city government decision-making was blamed for the billboards. Two "low-level" city Health Department employees signed off on the billboard designs without the knowledge of the department's director Mike Thomas, Rainford said.

"We've known for a long time that the health department is messed up, and this is just another example of this," he said.

The mayor agrees with the message of the billboards, but the way that message was communicated is what is inappropriate, Rainford said, adding that in the billboard with the two men embracing, it's unclear whether they are engaging in sexual acts.

The director of one group in the campaign, Blacks Assisting Blacks Against AIDS in St. Louis, questioned the city's interference in the matter. Erise Williams told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the billboards are "bold and innovative."

"They called it sexually explicit because two men are shirtless and embracing?" Williams asked. "If you're going to really support HIV ... prevention, don't succumb to the complaints or political pressure of a few people."

Rainford mentioned that he didn't personally find the signs offensive, "but I think the little old ladies in our neighborhoods find them very offensive."

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