A controversial electronic billboard 32 miles west of Indiana drew condemnation from Indiana Borough Council Tuesday night.
“We share the sentiments of (the) Indiana County Commissioners, Sunoco, and (state) Rep. Jeff Pyle (R-Ford City) in condemning the hateful language displayed on a privately-owned billboard along Route 422 in neighboring Armstrong County,” council said in a statement approved unanimously toward the end of its workshop.
Sunoco had been the supplier of gasoline to the service station along Route 422 just east of the primary entrance to Worthington, a borough west of Kittanning and not far from the Armstrong-Butler county line.
Sunoco pulled the plug on that connection after recent postings that included a reference to the acquittal of former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld of a homicide charge in the fatal June 19, 2018, shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II of Rankin. An online map of Sunoco locations no longer includes that service station.
“This digital billboard is owned by a private individual who signed a two-year lease with the Worthington-West Franklin (Township) Fire Department, who rent the land where the billboard is located,” Pyle said in his March 26 statement condemning the billboard. “This individual has threatened to sue the fire department should it try and break the lease.”
John Placek has been identified as that individual. He told the Kittanning Leader Times last week that the billboard had nothing to do with his service station and that Sunoco violated his First Amendment rights.
Placek told Pittsburgh’s WPXI-11 television in a phone interview that he knew he had pushed the envelope but was trying to promote racial dialogue.
“Indiana Borough strives to be a welcoming community within Indiana County,” Council President Peter Broad read prior to his colleagues unanimously approving their statement. “This means to embrace principles which celebrate diversity, equality and inclusion. It also means to keep the public aware of the adverse effects of racial discrimination; and do all we can to ensure it is clear hate has no place in our community.”
It is a sentiment similar to that expressed by councilors at other recent meetings and echoes what the county board of commissioners said last week.
“Those racially charged words and sentiments represent hate speech, and while it is protected speech under the First Amendment, it is hurtful, it is divisive, and it is the opposite of patriotism,” Commissioner Sherene Hess said.
That billboard had pictures of Rosfeld, under the word “policeman,” and Rose, under the word “criminal.” Another posting on that sign questioned how African-Americans could use an n-word slur “but whites can’t.”
Many saw the billboard and messages it had over the recent unsanctioned IUPatty’s weekend, as they were headed home from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The weekend coincided with the end of the trial held in Allegheny County but using a jury empaneled in Dauphin County because of media attention given that shooting.
“Spreading hateful language does not foster healthy conversation, nor does it consider the incalculable emotional damage to those it is aimed at,” Broad said. “As home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, our borough has a significant student population. Each student brings their own unique culture and backstories into our community. These same students eventually move on from our community and leave to go make the world a better place. It is our responsibility to ensure their right to live free of prejudice or discrimination while part of our community; and to highlight the importance of choosing love over hate.”
Pyle’s 60th Legislative District covers parts of Armstrong and Butler counties, as well as Blacklick, Conemaugh and Young townships in Indiana County.
“To the residents who have been calling my office regarding the distasteful and divisive messages appearing on the billboard in Worthington off of Route 422, I want you to know that I completely disapprove of this hurtful hate speech,” Pyle said. “My office and I continue to work with and speak to officials concerning this matter and are working to find a solution to this incredibly troubling issue.”
Council Vice President Gerald Smith moved to ratify the statement Broad read, with Councilman Sean McDaniel seconding that motion. Ten members of council were present, with Donald Lancaster and Jonathan Southard unable to attend.