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Woods of Terror billboard meets First Amendment test

by Jeff Sykes

A complaint about graphic billboard advertising around the Gate City prompted city staff to review the legality of the ads for the popular Woods of Terror attraction on North Church Street.

The parents of a special needs child sent the complaint via the Internet to Greensboro’s City Council on Oct. 17, according to records reviewed by YES! Weekly. In the complaint, the couple stated that their daughter “is terrified of anything scary.” The couple said they have to make weekly trips via the interstate to area hospitals and “have to tell her to look away each time we come up on these billboards that are everywhere.”

“Woods of Terror is making plenty of money and well known,” the child’s mother wrote. “Each year they put up these terrifying billboards with no regards to small children or those like our daughter that have special needs and is terrified by these photos. A strip club cannot post photos of women dancing on a strip pole, right? SO how is this legal? Please help us figure this out and do something about these very scary advertisements all over our city and even into Winston Salem and Durham.”

Local television stations reported on a similar complaint late last month.

City zoning staff fielded the complaint on Oct. 20, with Zoning Administrator Mike Kirkman advising legal staff that there was nothing in the city’s land development ordinance that regulates the content of billboard signage.

“The City’s LDO only regulates signage based on time, place and manner for the following public purposes,” Kirkman wrote in an email before going on to list the eight regulated purposes under city code. Kirkman explained that state statues regulate billboard signage by prohibiting “obscene images related to sexual behavior of the promotion of drug paraphernalia.

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“Since the LDO does not have any provisions related to the content of signage there would be no local enforcement authority related to signs that may be objectionable to individuals but do not relate to the two items listed by State statutes,” Kirkman concluded. “I am sympathetic to the person who is concerned how these images may be too scary for younger children but do not see any authority for the City to seek their removal.”

The billboards in question showed a young woman who was made up to look like a zombie or as if she had been attacked. They were prominently displayed along major highway corridors, including US 29, I-40 and I-85 around Greensboro.

Assistant City Attorney Terri A. Jones explained to staff the First Amendment issues involved with the complaint, following up on Kirkman’s explanation that the city does not regulate content beyond the two issues prohibited by the state.

“Unless the signs advertising Woods of Terror include obscenity or drug paraphernalia, then there is no mechanism to regulate the content of these signs,” Jones wrote.

City Attorney Tom Carruthers followed up with a brief not to city council members.

“While this advertising is in poor taste, it is not illegal,” Carruthers wrote. “Commercial advertising is a form of protected speech under our constitution. We sympathize with [the family], but this type of advertising is legally permitted.”

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