Free Speech for All to See

The back wall of Paul Gattone and Joy Soler’s house is inarguably eye-catching — not for its color or structure, but for its message.

“My child is an honor student, my governor is a lunatic,” the wall reads, in big blue letters.

The wall, on East Broadway in Tucson, has been a whiteboard for political messages from the couple, who own Revolutionary Grounds, a coffee shop and bookstore on North Fourth Avenue. The shop opened in 2008 and has served as a meeting space for many community groups, such as Occupy Tucson.

The couple first displayed a political message on the wall of their property 15 years ago to oppose Proposition 203, which eliminated bilingual education in Arizona’s public schools.

The message was “Support Diversity, Oppose English Only.” After the Arizona legislature passed the proposition in November 2000, the wall was painted white.

The couple left it blank until last fall, when their friend, Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, painted the slogan of her campaign for the Tucson Unified School District governing board. It was “Stand for Education,” and they decorated it with colorful handprints.

Ms. Soler recalled interacting with police officers when the message was being painted, to clarify that it was not graffiti. “I told them there was no fine line between graffiti and political speech and that I was sorry for making them lose time,” she said. With that, the police left.

Peter Gattone and Joy Soler painted this message on their home's back wall, which borders East Broadway near Columbus Boulevard, in response to a decreased public education budget.
Peter Gattone and Joy Soler painted this message on their home's back wall, which borders East Broadway near Columbus Boulevard, in response to a decreased public education budget.Noelle Haro-Gomez/NYT Institute

Sgt. Pete Dugan, who is aware of the messages that have appeared on the wall, said the officers “were probably checking.”

“If I’m on patrol and I see somebody drawing on a wall,” he said, “I may stop and check if it is graffiti.”

After Ms. Putnam-Hidalgo lost the election in November, the couple removed her name and kept the message.

Two months ago, when the State Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, approved a budget that incorporated a large cut in public education, Ms. Soler and Mr. Gattone painted on the wall, “My child is an honor student. My governor is not,” although their daughter is still in preschool.

Ms. Soler came up with the idea when she saw a bumper sticker that referred to the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. It said: “My child is an honor student. My governor is a moron.” She and Ms. Putnam-Hidalgo decided “moron” would look insulting.

Five weeks ago they changed “My governor is not” to “My governor is a lunatic” because a mother called Ms. Putnam-Hidalgo complaining that her son would feel offended for not being an honor student. “Since such a vanilla message would offend people anyway, we decided to put what we really meant,” Ms. Soler said.

Jerry Cruz, who lives nearby, finds the messages on the wall amusing. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s funny sometimes.”

Josh Price, a house painter who was working across the street, said the word “lunatic” did not go far enough.

The couple have not received any comment from the police about the current message. “It is First Amendment speech right there,” Sergeant Dugan said. “We would never touch that.”

Emily Athertone, a nurse who recently moved into the house on the opposite side of East Broadway, said, “I don’t like that it is a negative message advertised for everyone who is driving by. I have been wanting to move into this area for a long time, but when I saw this message, it was kind of a bummer.”

Mr. Gattone said he advises people who do not like the message to ignore it.

The next message Mr. Gattone and Ms. Soler want to put up is in support of Rosa Robles, who is under threat of deportation and is living in sanctuary at the Southside Presbyterian Church.