It was day 76 of the Hollywood Writers’ Strike, and comedian Chris Stephens traveled to the battle lines once again. But when he arrived in front of Universal Studios, he noticed something strange. The trees outside the studio – which offer a rare bit of shade from the brutal Los Angeles sun – were pruned until they were almost bare.
“Quick shout out to the good folks at @UniversalPics for trimming the trees that were giving us shade right before the 90+ degree week,” Stephens tweeted.
It’s a historic moment in Hollywood, as last week the actors’ and writers’ unions joined together for the first double strike since 1960. Although it has not been proven definitively that Universal was responsible, the striking entertainers found the timing strange.
“Obviously, I can’t say there’s a bunch of people smoking cigars in a room and saying, ‘Oh, let’s burn them all on the sidewalk,'” Stephens told Root Devices. “But the moment everyone on the line saw those trees being cut down, it seemed intentional.”
Universal did not respond to a request for comment.
Stephens’ tweet went viral — partly because it’s ridiculous to imagine a huge studio trimming trees in an act of union busting, but also because it turns out there’s a special corner of the internet obsessed with the Tree Act.
The Law of Trees is just what it sounds like: the Law of Trees. There is a Reddit community, r/treelaw, that has over 77,000 members. Not everyone is an expert on hyperspecific local tree laws. They just find this esoteric branch of law neat, especially when it comes up in extremely specific and bizarre scenarios.
One of Reddit’s most popular communities is r/AmITheAsshole (also known as AITA), where people share drama going on in their personal lives and ask Redditors to debate who’s the jerk in the situation. The Tree Act scratches the same itch as AITA, but it’s weirder because any situation where trees are involved in a lawsuit is probably a bit more niche than a bad breakup story. There’s even a comic about the Law of Trees attributed to him
It’s strange how often the Law of Trees pops up online and a bit of a fandom has formed around it. Like writer Jenna Rutenberg explained“I think the basis of this meme is that the story is usually that some rich jerk damages the trees for their own amenity/aesthetics/property value, and some brave lawyer nails them with an obscure statute and they get fined like mad.”
That seems to be the case in one ongoing dispute in which a New Jersey homeowner cut down 32 trees on his neighbor’s property, apparently to get a better view of New York City, but according to tree law, each tree cut without a permit is subject to a $1,000 fine. Twitter user @SamAsIAm posted about the incident, which he heard about from a friend who is a municipal arborist. The arborist found that there was a provision requiring mature trees to be replanted, but the area where the trees were cut was on a mountainside that was inaccessible by car, so now the property owner who cut the trees could be on the hook . to pay for road construction and replant trees. And because these trees were so old, it will be very difficult and expensive to replace them.
To rephrase it as an AITA post: Am I being a jerk if I cut down 32 trees on my neighbor’s property, but instead of being charged $32,000 in fines, they’re now going to make me build a road and find transplanted, equally mature trees to replant?
Like the situation at Universal, this incident went viral, and when the preliminary hearing was held in June, 200 people tried to join the Zoom public call.
Of course, the combination of large corporations (supposedly) behaving badly and the Tree Act created the perfect storm for internet virality. Stephens’ tweet was even noticed by Los Angeles City Supervisor Kenneth Mejia, who investigated the situation.
After consulting with the Office of Street Services, Mejia found that the city had not issued any permits to allow the trimming of these trees, nor had any permits been issued in the past three years. Whoever is responsible for this failuresheetable behavior we’ll charge an administrative fee that starts at $250, but Stephens says it’s not about the money. When incidents like this during a writers’ and actors’ strike go viral, it can help turn the public narrative against the studios. That’s an advantage writers didn’t have in 2008, when TikTok didn’t exist and Twitter was two years old.
“What [studios] can’t afford, but it’s priceless, it’s outrage,” he said. “These are people who watch their shows and subscribe to their streaming services. They clearly care when people are upset.”