ACLU, Dunleavy shadow campaign seek to overturn anti-billboard law, legalize illegal signs

The ACLU and the Dunleavy shadow campaign are seeking to have a judge overturn the state law against billboards enacted by voters in 1998. There has long been good reason to amend the law, but this is going too far.

The law is "unconstitutional because it improperly regulates the content of citizen speech," according to the Alaska branch of the civil liberties union, the Dunleavy shadow campaign and Eric Siebels, a state employee who is worried that the state may take his Dunleavy sign near Palmer. If his sign is within the state right-of -way, the state should nab it.

Siebels, who had a Walker/Mallott sign four years ago, sees political motives in state moves to curb illegal signs, a claim reflected in the lawsuit. The claim is dubious because for many years there has been enforcement of the law at campaign times, especially when signs are illegally placed within the right-of-way.

The law has long put the Department of Transportation in an impossible position.

This lawsuit fails to back up its claim that the state is targeting people based on who they support. Saying that some illegal Dunleavy signs have been removed, along with other illegals from Mead Treadwell and Mark Begich does not prove anything.

I think it is more likely that Bob Walker, the brother of Gov. Bill Walker and the CEO of signs for the Walker campaign, was quicker to respond and remove the illegal Walker signs tagged in the Anchorage area by DOT. 

The Dunleavy shadow campaign has spent a fortune on signs and lots of them are in illegal places. The group said in the lawsuit it  has 1,000 signs statewide.

I have little sympathy for state politicians who complain about the sign law and never try to improve it to allow temporary political signs on private property. I have no sympathy for those who put illegal signs within the state right-of-way along roads. Most or perhaps all of the signs seized so far have been within the right-of-way.

The shadow campaign, funded largely with money from MIke Dunleavy's brother in Texas and Alaskan Bob Penney, serves as the defacto Dunleavy campaign when it comes to big plywood signs. It has spent more than $50,000 on signs so far.

The anti-billboard law enacted by voters, following up on measures that began long ago, declares that Alaska will be forever free of billboards. It was approved in 1998 by a large majority and would meet the same fate if put to the voters today.

It bans most outdoor advertising along major roads, unless the ads are for activities on the premises.

A case like this is probably long overdue, given the decades of hypocrisy by Alaska state politicians who have knowingly promoted the use of illegal campaign signs by their supporters without amending the law.

One of the questions this raises is why Dunleavy, during his time in the Legislature, never made an effort to legalize campaign signs. The same question can be put to almost every legislator running for re-election. Almost all have illegal campaign signs posted on their behalf.

The 1998 measure banned outdoor advertising "within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way and visible from the main traveled way of the interstate, primary or secondary highways in this state."

If the ad or political sign is farther back than 660 feet, it can not be large enough to be read by those driving by on the highway. This pretty much wipes out the options for legal outdoor campaign signs where there is enough traffic to justify such signs.

I have written many times throughout the years about the need to amend the law and allow temporary political signs.

What has always happened in the past is that the political establishment encourages the posting of illegal campaign signs, sending a clear message that some laws don't have to be obeyed. There is also moaning and gnashing of teeth if the state tries to enforce the law.

But then, once the election is over, our legislators and governors lose all interest in this issue and the signs are either stashed away in the garage or left to rot for years to come. Once elected, no one wants to be seen as a billboard backer.

But until the law is changed, the candidates should take steps to see that their campaigns obey it. Almost every candidate has illegal campaign signs placed on his/her behalf on private property across the state.

In 2003, Fairbanks Rep. Jim Holm said he found this prohibition to be outrageous and tried to amend the law. A bill passed the House 27-6 and died in the Senate. A decade ago I wrote that legalizing political signs as big as a sheet of plywood would not make Alaska a billboard haven, but it would recognize freedom of speech when it comes to state politics. Sen. Joe Paskvan tried to amend the law some years later, but that attempt failed as well.

If a billboard legalization measure went far beyond allowing political signs, and allowed Lower 48 type billboards, I would expect another voter initiative like the one two decades ago. It would pass.

What has always happened in the past is that the political establishment encourages the posting of illegal campaign signs, sending a clear message that some laws don't have to be obeyed. 

Dermot Cole5 Comments