Being able to stick posters on walls, public spaces extends free speech, but it needs to be done judiciously

Even in the era of Twitter, Facebook, free advertising websites and so on, getting one’s message across in a very visible way, in a place of public importance is difficult. Thus, the people of the night are still on their rounds, sticking posters. Many of the walls along city roads now have the traditional kitschy poster again, announcing anything from public events, films, commercial gala events, to a death of someone in the locality.

I contrast this with the community notice boards that I used to scan in small English cities, more than a dozen years ago. There were specific places along streets and near intersections, where one could put up notices on wooden boards, on neighbourhood services, garage sales, tuitions and the odd household item such as furniture for sale. These notices were hyperlocal in the true sense, completely transparent and belong to another time and place. There’s too much of commerce going on in India to provide space for that sort of thing. Not many residents’ welfare associations here use their internal notice boards in such a productive manner.

Here in Chennai, the advent of technology has created new marketplaces, such as on Facebook, where friends do virtually, what people did with paper notices a generation ago. Yet, as this piece in The Hindu pointed out sometime ago, the role of the wall posters is undiminished. The civic authorities periodically issue a ‘ban’ order but that has little meaning for those who publicise their messages in public spaces, including some Metro rail construction barriers, before the crack of dawn. Some of the messages are important, while others are purely commercial.

When it comes to the politically influential, the rules are far from rigid. That can be inferred from this piece in this newspaper published in April last year. What it says is that though the courts have laid down strict norms to put up advertisement and other hoardings, the orders do not exactly strike fear among those determined to put out their message at street corners, obstructing the passage of the common man and often posing a danger to traffic. Political parties lead here.

There is something interesting about the small notices stuck inside the suburban and MRTS train coaches. Most of them offer jobs, part-time, full-time, to the educated and the barely educated. Most offer impressive salaries for work-from-home, and it would make you wonder why there is talk of so much unemployment, when there are all these opportunities. But the greater concern is the defacing of the interiors of our train coaches, which do not provide much information to the traveller in the first place. We would like to have some notices of that kind!