For years, John Placek and his America Fuel gas station (formerly a Sunoco, but we will circle back to that) has been offering two main things — cheaper gas than the competition and some very controversial politically charged billboards. Some have called the signs racist, hate speech, and other disparaging things. Instead of heeding the calls for him to voluntarily cease, Placek is upping his game and expanding.

Placek started with one billboard outside his gas station. In March of 2019, Sunoco decided it was too much to allow him to represent Sunoco in any way, shape, and form and cut ties with him. Placek carried on as an independent and for a short time, laid off the messaging and concentrated on selling gas. That didn’t last long, however, and by August, Placek was once again advertising his views on the busy Armstrong County highway (Rt 422) which is right outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Now, Placek is up to multiple billboards in the area and plans to add more. They are all located in Armstrong County or neighboring Butler County, Pa.

Placek does indeed offer the cheapest gas around, often advertising prices well below the competition. Drivers do discover, however, when arriving at the pumps, that the advertised price is “cash only” and if they wish to pay with a credit or debit card, that would bring the price closer in line with the other guys.

The gas also comes with a bigger price. When there, the customer will be assaulted with some very right wing messaging. Some of it is considered racist by many, other messages seem to reflect other forms of hate where marginalized groups are attacked, and of course, there are the pro-Trump messages.

Of course, that always makes one wonder why those three things seem to always go hand in hand?

Placek’s latest billboard is located in Butler County, Pa. Like the others, the signs are drawing ire from local residents who are offended and don’t want these extremist views to represent their community.

When interviewed by a local TV station, Placek stated that he just wanted people to respect his views as he respects other people’s views. But many residents don’t see “respect” in any of those views, just hate and misinformation.

The FBI has been made aware of Placek’s billboards but thus far has refused any action saying that as of yet, he isn’t breaking any laws.

FBI Pittsburgh officials said, “FBI Pittsburgh is aware of the billboard. The men and women of the FBI work hard every day to protect the American people and to uphold constitutional rights, including the right to free speech. Free speech, however, cannot be misconstrued to include directed threats toward another individual, group, or location. We will take action when the activity crosses the line into criminal behavior.”

“I think everyone has the right to free speech but when its hate speech, it’s hard for me to understand that someone would have so much hate in their heart to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to display that on a highway,” said Heidi Priest.

Heidi Priest lives down the road and her kids go to elementary school just a few minutes away. She’s upset because they drive past this billboard everyday.

“So for them to see some of the stuff that’s on there is just disappointing,” said Priest.

“I think it’s terrible and I think it’s disrespectful and I think it should be taken down,” said Laura Mitchell.

For years now, Placek has continued his messaging despite being cut off from Sunoco and pleas from his community to cease and desist. Of course, these situations always beg the questions surrounding free speech, censorship, and hate speech.

But if one takes a step back, it is clear that what Placek is doing is not “free” speech but paid advertisements that are being forced onto the community. Is that the same thing essentially? Does Placek have the right to use his cash to force his views in such a way? And, of course, is the money spent on these messages solely from his own pocket or does he have others bankrolling the campaign? If so, who?

It is also worth noting that both counties where the billboards are located were won handily by former President Trump. It is also worth noting that both counties border Allegheny County, where the city of Pittsburgh is located and Biden won big there. The highways where the billboards are located get a lot of traffic from Allegheny County and Pittsburgh.

The FBI says that so far his billboards aren’t threats to anyone, but many disagree with that assertion. Some say this is free speech and must be free from any government oppression. Others call it hate speech and demand that someone step in and stop this from continuing.

What do you say?


Featured image is a mash up of various screen captures