The Case Against Surveillance Cameras for Atheist Billboards

Last week, I talked about how better graphic design was unnecessary for atheist billboards. In short, I argued, the whole point of the billboards was to gain publicity for the local groups (so they could get on TV or in a newspaper article and talk about what their groups do and what they stand for), and the messages on the billboards were enough to get that publicity. No one ever cares about what the billboards look like… except, it seems, for atheists online, who think a billboard that looks ugly to them means X, Y, or Z.

Judging by the comments on that post, I’m not wrong. Sure, it’d be great to have nicer-looking billboards in some cases, but when it comes to getting the attention of the media, it’s just not needed. Atheist groups have been doing a great job of getting attention on their own.

So let’s talk about another aspect of atheist billboards: The fact that they get vandalized pretty damn frequently.

The response I hear so often is that we should pay for hidden camera to catch potential vandals in the act. With all the money we pay for the billboards, why not pay for some security, right?

Again, this is a ridiculous idea.

No atheist group will ever place a hidden video camera or get a volunteer to watch the billboard to catch a vandal in the act.

Why not?

1) You’re looking after a billboard, not a pile of diamonds. No one wants to put up expensive equipment to protect something that many companies will replace for free in the case of damage.

2) Even if the vandal gets caught, it doesn’t mean that person will be punished. Two weeks ago, vandal Joe McDonald admitted to cutting down an atheist banner in Pennsylvania. So far, he’s gotten off scot-free.

3) The point of atheist billboards is to get publicity for the groups that put them up.

You know what gets even more publicity than a billboard proclaiming the existence of local atheists? That same billboard getting torn down or spray-painted over.

No groups want to see their billboards vandalized — it can be a huge hassle getting a new sign up — but whenever it happens, I guarantee you that the first reaction from group leaders is not to file a police report; it’s to take pictures and alert the press. (Then, you tell the authorities.)

Sometimes, the second wave of publicity (“A possible hate crime!” “Religious intolerance!”) can be even bigger than the first.

For what it’s worth, I realize there’s a possibility that atheist groups could vandalize their own signs for the sake of publicity. I’ve never known any group to do this and I *really* hope that never happens. Besides being unethical, the ramifications of getting caught would be huge.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    LOGIC FAIL. You say vandalization would bring a second wave of publicity. But obtaining video evidence of the act would in no way invalidate that. So what was your point?

    • Gus Snarp

      You’re not considering the issue of cost. The question is always whether a decision is worth the cost. In this case he’s arguing that the benefits of a camera, if any, is not worth the cost. The same is true of the design argument, he’s arguing that the billboards get attention either way, so the additional cost of good design is not worth incurring.

      Now if you think the cost is minor, or if you see other benefits (and when it comes to design, I do, cameras, not so much) then you may arrive at a different conclusion.

      • toast4122

        You can get cameras designed for capturing images of game for around $50 apiece. They are battery operated and work on motion censers. you might have to wade through a lot of pictures of pigeons but it just might capture the “bad guy” also.

        • Kurtis Rader

          I’ve got news for you: those cameras have insufficient image quality to allow you to identify a vandal. You’re going to need at least megapixel resolution with a good lens which is going to cost at least $1000. I know because I have a couple of Axis P1346 monitoring my property. And at night you’ll also need IR illuminators. That’s going to cost $500 if you need only one but more likely you’ll need two or three.

          There is the small matter that even a good quality daylight image of the person is unlikely to be sufficient to provide a useful lead. I’d love to see these miscreants put through our judicial meat grinder but everyone suggesting setting up a camera seems pretty clueless about what that would actually entail for it to be useful.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Hemant, I gotta call you out on a logical fallacy on #2: the Perfect Solution fallacy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana_fallacy

    It is true that a security camera will not lead to every perpetrator being punished. However, it may lead to more perps being prosecuted and may make sense to evaluate whether it would be worth the cost of a security camera.

    You other points are just fine and make sense to me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/janeteholmes Janet Holmes

      This is the same mistake Sam Harris makes in his article about the gun situation in the USA. He says that because gun laws and buy backs aren’t the perfect solution there is no point in trying. This is an error.

  • Xuuths

    What billboard companies replace damaged/vandalized signs for free? Seriously.

  • observer

    To me, one of the biggest reasons of making the billboards unsecured is to make a point: Christians claim to be the “moral” ones, and you’d think they would be the first ones to talk to a reporter, and chastise their fellow men for such a reprehensible act, even if it’s something they disagree with. But nope, when an atheist message gets vandalized, to the best of my memory, no Christian steps up to condemn the misdeed.

    • Tainda

      We don’t count.

  • Trickster Goddess

    Hidden camera footage of a billboard being vandalized would probably get more play on the tv news than just a static shot of a damaged billboard. Not to mention the additional views you could get on YouTube.

  • jdm8

    Did FFTF try pressing charges on the guy that admitted defacing their sign? I honestly don’t know the law regarding vandalism, but some crimes you need the wronged party to press charges.

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.tingley Richard Tingley

    I have to disagree on the surveillance issue. Not only could it catch the people doing it, but it could expose the bigger issue which is a bias in local law enforcement that needs to be addressed.

  • _7654_

    I would still go for the camera footage, and not for the punishment aspect of it. I would invite the vandalizer (word) for a public/online debate where they can explain their actions, and we can counter their reasoning. It would bring far greater publicity, AND would effectively reduce the vandalizing incidents :-) after a few debates.. Just think about it. Oh and the banners, while not made of diamonds, are not cheap.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    For what it’s worth, I realize there’s a possibility that atheist groups
    could vandalize their own signs for the sake of publicity. I’ve never
    known any group to do this and I *really* hope that never happens.
    Besides being unethical, the ramifications of getting caught would be
    huge.

    I’ll tell you exactly what it’s worth: if you had video footage of Joe Q. Christian vandalising your billboard, that would be pretty solid evidence that you didn’t do it yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5736566 Scott Maddox

    It doesn’t have to be a hidden camera. Put a sign up that says it’s being monitored by surveillance cameras. This will probably deter would be vandals.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Put a sign up that says it’s being monitored by surveillance cameras.

      Right. Then the second, hidden, camera get footage of the primary camera being destroyed. Brilliant!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504525766 Michael Harbour

    Here’s your headline:
    Atheist Billboards Martyred

    • coyotenose

      We just need a cross-shaped billboard frame…

  • Popeye

    And besides…you might catch an atheist doing the vandalizing.

    • John F

      Well, if Christians are worried about being framed, they could monitor the billboards.

      • Goldstein Lives

        Good idea! Next time one goes up in Kansas City, The Goldstein Squad will be there.

    • coyotenose

      Except we won’t, because that’s stupidly paranoid and a pristine example of the definition of irrational bigotry.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    If this is the case against, then people putting up billboards should just get on and sort out some surveillance. Going point-by-point:

    1 – Not true; billboards are much more expensive than cameras, and it’s not like the camera should be used up in the process.

    2 – A better chance is a better chance, even if it’s not perfect. And with actual concrete evidence it should be a fairly straight-forward matter to sue for damages, regardless of the attitude from the police et al.

    3 – Video of vandals would help with that, not make it harder.

    There also seems to be an underlying assumption here that the mere presence of a camera eliminates the vandalism, rather than catching the vandal in the act; that assumption is unlikely to be true, and is almost certainly total nonsense in the case of a hidden camera where the miscreant doesn’t even know it’s there.

  • Bob Daniel

    “Judging by the comments on that post, I’m not wrong. ” – You mean, judging by the cherry-picked comments that agreed with you. I seem to recall more than a couple of comments in support of better graphic design, my own included.

    The video thing is a little less straightforward though, so I’m reserving judgement for now. My first thought was that video is the no-brainer solution to an annoying problem, but on further reflection, it would perhaps just make us look bad. It’s all about perception, after all.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Oh, I’ll admit just about everyone disagreed with me, but just about all the comments argued for graphic design on an artistic, “it would give off a better image of your group” level. Which isn’t the point I was making.

      • Robin

        Hemant’s point was that if the goal is to raise awareness and publicity, more artistic signs were unnecessary to achieve that. Butt-ugly signs did the job quite well.

    • not-a-yank

      I think Hemant’s point was to take a dig of that know-it-all over at pharyngula.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I do see an argument to putting advertising funds towards more advertising, and not surveillance. So what if they vandalize a sign. Let ‘em. Put up another one. Heck, maybe we should have more online advertising. It’s always amusing to get a “And I’m a Mormon” or “Christian Mingle” ad on this blog.

  • eric

    The whole problem will likely be solved in a decade or so, even if nonbeliever advertising groups do nothing. As big flat screens get cheaper, more billboard space will go electronic, and then such vandalism will (a) be harder to do and (b) be much more rigorously fought by venue owners.

    Right now, bus owners and billboard owners have little to no incentive to protect the messages that rent their space. But when damage to the message IS damage to the space, they’re going to get very aggresive about both preventing that damage and punishing those who cause it.

  • Bill Haines

    Vandals generally do their thing in the wee hours, walking to the sites while leaving any transportation some distance away, wearing very common yet concealing clothing like jeans and a hoodie. Security photos, or even video, are unlikely to be useful, so not worth the expense and logistics to obtain.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      i disagree. “hunting” and security cameras deal with low light effectively all the time. they may cost 100$ instead of 50$, but they exist.

      • TheDaringDragoon

        How about “hunting” the vandals? Have an atheist hunter set up sort of a deer stand on the billboard out of view and soak the vandal with ice cold water from some sort of Super Soaker?

      • Kurtis Rader

        See my reply above. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Feel free to provide the funding and manpower to actually set these cameras up if you feel I don’t know what I’m talking about Otherwise, STFU.

  • Sven2547

    You know what’s better than a second-wave of publicity caused by the vandalism? A third-wave of publicity when they CATCH the vandal, put him on TV and have him try to justify his brazen act of hate.

  • Philbert

    “You know what gets even more publicity than a billboard proclaiming the existence of local atheists? That same billboard getting torn down or spray-painted over.

    No groups want to see their billboards vandalized — it can be a huge hassle getting a new sign up — but whenever it happens, I guarantee you that the first reaction from group leaders is not to file a police report; it’s to take pictures and alert the press. (Then, you tell the authorities.)”

    No group wants to see their billboard vandalized, but they should! Think of all the free publicity!

    I am unconvinced that it’s in the long term best interests of atheists or society in general to promote the idea that vigilante censorship is OK. I recognize that we can’t watch every billboard 24/7 but that doesn’t mean nothing should be done to deter such incidents.

  • digibud

    Nonsense. You’d get as much publicity by catching the idiots and there might be further recourse if a group chose to sue the idiot in civil court which could bring more publicity if that’s the only goal. Additionally it’s simply a good thing to stand up for ourselves. I agree that if setting up a vid camera were to cost exorbitant amounts of money it might not be worth it but I think you’re off base on that count too. Add me to the list of folks who think you’re wrong on this point but I’ll also mention this is my single most favorite blog, and much thanks for all you do.

  • John Small Berries

    No one ever cares about what the billboards look like… except, it seems, for atheists online, who think a billboard that looks ugly to them means X, Y, or Z.

    “Nobody cares… except for the people who do care, but since I don’t care, they don’t matter.”

    Seriously, though, did you ever find any statistics or studies to back up your assertion that design doesn’t make any difference to how the information on a billboard is received? You never responded when I asked you for them last time, so I’m guessing the answer is “no”.

    Are you really asking a bunch of atheists to simply accept your claims on faith?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    oooh, another opportunity to make Hemant butthurt! yeah! /silly

    but some of this ‘reasoning’ reminds me of the ‘reasoning’ battered women apply to themselves when they refuse to admit, and take appropriate action, in those situations. “he hurts me, but i brought it on myself.” “maybe more people will pay attention to him, if i just don’t say anything, and then he’ll be less angry with me” etc.

    one of the big problems in our country right now is that the Rule of Law is dying, before our very eyes, and so many of us just sit back and lament and justify and say things like “that’s just the way it is” and suchlike. this isn’t healthy. it’s how civilized societies kill themselves.

    the law is the law. deface a billboard (of any kind)? pay a fine, go to jail, whatever the law says. as someone said above, cameras are cheap these days. setting one up in front of each billboard erected would be a tiny fraction of the overall cost. they work, and even if the police in the area in question refuse to arrest the offender, it’s still fodder for FB and other internet posts. “Joe Hillbilly of Backwater E. TX revealed as a property defacing criminal” posts go viral all the time, with video. so there’s the publicity thing you’re looking for.

    but most importantly, it is about not acting like we enjoy being second class citizens willing to meekly lie down and take it, and then excuse our abusers. fuck that noise.

    what happens if a radical atheist burns a church down? he goes to jail for a long time, if he isn’t lynched by the community first.
    every TV and newspaper news department will cover it, for hours and inches of column space, for months on end.

    what happens when thousands of dollars of atheist property are destroyed? maybe a news blip. maybe a police “investigation” resulting in a file that is never returned to or followed up. most likely an argument about how “both sides have a point, those atheists are so rude to those nice, good xtians and how dare they put up an ad?”

    see the difference?

    no matter how much “good” publicity we get, a much stronger, more effective response is to say “i want equal protection and enforcement of the laws.” gays have had to, and still are having to, do this. no one is going to be shamed into giving us our rights; only legal remedies are permanent.

    we can get plenty of attention by hosting protests, conferences, writing LTE and blog posts and comments, doing charity, and other actions in which we are not subjected to the humiliation of being abused, while no authority does anything about it and the only message we seem to send is “i’m sorry, Mommie Dearest.”

    plus, think of the bonus material of having dozens, if not scores or hundreds, of live video examples of exactly who it is in these communities who are doing this. instant video gold. “so and so of the blah blah community church was arrested today for defacing property” and their churches would have no choice but to hang their collective heads in shame and disown what probably was a premiere member for being a caught red-handed criminal.

    sorry, friend Hemant, but once again you are just wrooooong.

    • Helanna

      I’m sorry, did you just compare the (perfectly true) statement that vandalism leads to more publicity to *domestic abuse*?

      And then you accused *Hemant* of using bad logic?! That’s definitely the stupidest and most offensive analogy I’ve seen today. Nobody’s saying we “brought it on ourselves” – we’re saying that vandalism reveals an ugly side to these “nice Christian folk”, and that we should focus attention on that. Nobody’s saying “Oh, let them vandalize it, maybe they’ll be less angry with atheists.” We’re saying if people are gonna vandalize the billboards, we can at least get some more publicity out of it.

      Disagree if you want – it seems like you think upholding the law and stopping vandalism is more important than publicity, and that’s a fine stance, I’m largely in agreement – but twisting another viewpoint to compare it to a freaking domestic violence victim’s is just disingenuous and wrong.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        my ex-husband wrapped his hands around my neck and tried to strangle me to death. that was just one example of the abuse i suffered while married.

        please don’t bother to lecture me about abuse survivors. thanks for your comment.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        my ex-husband wrapped his hands around my neck and tried to strangle me to death. that was just one example of the abuse i suffered while married.

        please don’t bother to lecture me about abuse survivors. thanks for your comment.

        • Helanna

          I’m sorry for your experiences, but I don’t see how that’s relevant. You’re still badly misrepresenting the arguments used.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hugh-Kramer/1217598709 Hugh Kramer

    I suppose it’s at least possible that atheists might vandalize their own billboards for the publicity but, good grief, why should we bother when there are so many Christians out there willing to do it for us?

  • Godlesspanther

    I have to disagree on the appearance of the atheist billboards. That’s right, I want to see the Mona fucking Lisa of atheist billboards.

    • coyotenose

      You want to see a billboard that is a portrait of the designer dressed as the opposite gender?

      • Godlesspanther

        Well, I didn’t intend that quite so literally. I’m thinking a great slogan that would double as a public service announcement — “Prayer doesn’t work — fasten your safety belts.”

  • Michael Stone

    First, you are wrong about the importance of billboard design, it does matter, and the comments on your previous post clearly reflected that fact. To continue to argue that billboard design does not matter is troubling, and quite frankly irrational. Better design is, by definition, better. Why settle for less?

    As for video surveillance, news media outlets would be far more likely to publicize vandalism against atheist billboards (or anything else) if there is video capturing the incident.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Billboard design doesn’t affect publicity. The media will come regardless of how the billboards look.

      Why argue against it? Because better design costs money, groups can’t afford it, and it’s really not going to add anything to their publicity campaigns. The message is all that matters.

      Ditto with vandalism. The act alone will get publicity and allow group leaders to talk about their group with reporters. That’s the *entire* point of publicizing the vandalism. Videotaping potential vandals is a lot of work for relatively little payoff. Let’s say you caught someone. How much more publicity are you going to get beyond the stories about the vandalism itself? And how much of that story would be about the atheist group? My answer to both questions is “very little.”

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        it’s really not going to add anything to their publicity campaigns

        i think this is the lynchpin of where your critics and you disagree.

        good design does “add something.”

        prestige. rememberance. impact. zeitgeist. impression. money.

        i can’t remember if there’s been a post about it at this blog, but lots of places i read make jokes about ‘really stupid ads.’ the I Can Haz Cheeseburger? site is a good example, along with FAILblog. people go viral over bad advertising all the time.

        similarly, iirc there is a whole discussion about “the best ads of the Superbowl” every year, no? millions, maybe billions, discuss them for days afterward.

        the point of good design is to make more people interested in your ad/cause. designers are cheap, in this economy. for a couple hundred dollars, pros can be used to come up with really great, memorable, positive billboards. that will get even more media bobbleheads talking about them, and make even more churchies mad. that’s the goal here, right? to get more people talking about atheism? well, why settle for half a loaf, when 300$ (out of $10,000) will get you even more?

        it is just too amateur to say that design doesn’t matter, is my point. the pros in corporate america wouldn’t spend what they do (billions) if that were not the case. this isn’t just about high school clubs; we’re trying to change the political process and a national culture. that costs money, like anything else in our society, to be effective.

      • ruth

        If you can’t afford good design I think it would be best not to do the billboard. Design is part of the message.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

          Have to disagree with that. The “ugly” billboards with atheist messages are getting media attention like almost nothing else has. We don’t want to let great be the enemy of the good.

          • midnight rambler

            Disagreeing with the near-universal opinion of everyone else doesn’t make you any less wrong. Ask Kent Hovind.

  • Christ the Other White Meat

    It a shame that no one was prosecuted for vandalizing the Atheist banner, or anyone’s public display, this just shows how poorly our judicial system really is. However, I have had christians arrested for vandalizing and trying to remove a front license plate that read “Christ the Other White Meat” in which I believe they were offended but oh well I am just exercising my 1st amendment rights. The license plate did exactly what I thought it would do, excite vandalism by christians and my point was proven, unfortunately they were arrested for vandalism and theft.

  • Petzl

    Hemant, I enjoy your site but your head is completely wrong on this issue.

    1) You’re looking after a billboard, not a pile of diamonds.
    No one wants to put up expensive equipment to protect something that
    many companies will replace for free in the case of damage.

    “It’s too expensive.” Nonsense. For $50, a savant can rig up an easily concealable system (talking cheap cell-phone video, not Mission Impossible-quality). ok, maybe you have to maintain it every 24 hours to download the video. but you’d really only have to do it for the first few days– i think that’s when it’s going to get vandalized, when it’s first put up. For an ad that costs thousands (?), if you care about the message, i don’t think it’s exorbitant, in time or money. (Timewise, you could even organize a volunteer force from the atheist community to distribute out the responsibilities.)

    2) Even if the vandal gets caught, it doesn’t mean that person will be punished. Two weeks ago, vandal Joe McDonald admitted to cutting down an atheist banner in Pennsylvania. So far, he’s gotten off scot-free.

    “No one will prosecute.” Well, i guess if you assume our justice system won’t act on evidence of criminal offenses, nothing is possible. Let’s all take our toys and go home. Really, this is a terrible argument.

    3) The point of atheist billboards is to get publicity for the groups that put them up. You know what gets even more publicity than a billboard proclaiming the
    existence of local atheists? That same billboard getting torn down or
    spray-painted over.

    “We get more effective publicity when they’re vandalized.” This is a good point. How much more interesting of a story will it be then when we have video of the vandal. It goes viral. It turns out the vandal is the son of the local police chief/pastor, etc. How much more publicity is that?

    But to be less PR-centric, an unsolved and unpunished episode of vandalism is encouragement to vandals. It creates a culture of intimidation of bullying. Fox News puts the article up and snickers. Instead of publicizing and mainstreaming atheism, the message is now: “we, the majority, can bully the atheists and they have to take it. Film at 11.”

  • andreas

    In order to sue or prosecute anyone for that you would have to show some material harm, where there is none. The cost of the poster is not serious enough to merit more than a petty vandalism misdemeanor charge which most jurisdictions wouldn’t prosecute unless an LEO was standing right there. Even then, they’d just give them a ticket and a fine.

    Let’s not go overboard, I agree with Hemant. The answer to censorship, petty vandalism and selective-blindness by officials is *more speech*

    We should do a fundraising challenge. The first poster you tear down we set a $1000 target. The second poster we set a $2000 target. Put the donation goals on the poster. Keep tearing them down, to increase funding!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    There is a bit of a logic problem with your post;

    Game cameras are cheap – around 150 dollars. Signs cost a lot – thousands of dollars. They, and the cameras, are reusable. So the potential return on investment to protect the sign and deter crime far outweighs the outlay.

    Further, the fact that they get replaced is irrelevant. The cost of the replacement will come off the supplier’s insurance. That in turn causes insurance premiums across the board to increase, however small that increase is per insurance buyer it remains an increase. So the crime is not victimless and without cost to others.

    Not doing anything to stop the vandalism only serves to embolden others to do the same. The law is the law, and if it is not enforced then the injured party has a right to civil redress against the lax officials who did nothing.

    It is time to teach Fundys that breaking the law comes with a cost, not that they can do it and get away scot free.

  • ruth

    I disagree with your reading of the comments on your prior post. It is important to have quality billboards. They create an impression of what atheists are like. Many comments reflected that fact. It simply is not true that any publicity is good publicity.

    • ruth

      Oops, I see that you agree that most of us disagreed with you! I should have read the comments before posting.

  • Tobais27

    1. You put up the billboard with camera survelliance (it’s really not that expensive anymore)
    2. Someone vandalizes the billboard and you get all the aforementioned publicity about intolerance.
    3. You publicize the vidoetape of the vandalism and force the authorities to prosecute (or you get even more publicity for their refusal to do so)
    4. You get even more publicity at the trial and conviction.

  • Riddles

    I’d have to disagree with this. For too long we have let these vandals get away with it. Just because one of the first vandals has been found and not punished, doesn’t mean we should give up.

    We should try to catch each vandal in the act and have them properly punished. It may not start out perfect in the beginning but if we get the ball rolling we can start lowering the chance of vandalism since these people will start taking possible punishment into the equation.

    If we gave up on other things because they didn’t succeed in the beginning then atheists would have a much smaller voice (if at all) in America.

  • Robin

    Wherever one stands on this issue, it does feel like that putting up security cameras with the expectation of catching a vandal smacks of entrapment, or at the very least, pettiness.

    I don’t mean that I feel that way, I just worry that’s the image which would be perceived by believers.

  • Charles Raymond Miller

    This particular billboard calls for a second alteration. Change “club” to “cult”.

  • Snertly

    If you’re going to promote Atheism by way of graphic design, you should not pick a logo that instantly identifies you as the villain from a Dan Brown novel.


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