Court gives OK for “small” 4-by-8-foot political signs along state roads

The kinds of signs allowed under the state court agreement. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

An Anchorage Superior Court judge today approved a partial deal between the Alaska Department of Transportation and the ACLU of Alaska in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a voter-approved ban on political signs posted along state roads.

The deal, which was proposed by the state during oral arguments last week and posted today by Juneau Empire reporter James Brooks, will “allow small, temporary political campaign signs” to be “displayed on private property on private property by the owners or occupants of that property who have not been paid to display the signs.”

Those “small” signs can be up to 4-by-8-feet, which are typically the largest signs produced by campaigns and are one of the main products of ACLU of Alaska’s partner in the lawsuit, Dunleavy for Alaska. Dunleavy for Alaska is the independent expenditure group largely bankrolled by the brother of Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunleavy.

The deal maintains the state’s ability to remove campaign signs “that pose a safety concern to the public, or dealing with unsafe signs in their usual manner, regardless of the content of the sign, or whether it is located on private property.”

The state has laws on the books that prohibit all types of outdoor advertising within 660-feet or viewable from state roadways regardless of whether they’re on private property or not. The law contains some exemptions, like on-premises signs, and the ACLU of Alaska argues that it’s being unfairly applied to political speech.

The lawsuit is far from being decided, but if successful the ACLU and Dunleavy for Alaska would likely render the entirety of the billboard ban unconstitutional, opening the doors for billboards along Alaska’s state roadways. The state also worries that overturning the law would endanger as much as $50 million in annual highway funds made available by the Federal Highway Beautification Act.

After cheering the win on Twitter, the ACLU of Alaska spent most of the afternoon defending the lawsuit. It contended that contends that it’s not the objective of the lawsuit to overturn the law even though it does argue that the law should be found unconstitutional.

“We fully expect the legislature to either amend the statute this spring to solve the issue or to do so immediately after our victory, either way, commercial billboards are not coming to Alaska,” the civil rights advocacy group wrote.  “We just want it to be crystal clear to Alaskans that we are not challenging the state’s ability to regulate commercial billboards and are not advocating for allowing them. Our case is ONLY about political speech.”

Ah, yes, the Legislature, which hasn’t been known for being particularly punctual or on-task in recent years.

Still, perhaps legislators will be motivated by the intent of the challenged law, which would also be struck down by the ACLU lawsuit: “The people of the State of Alaska find that the presence of billboards visible from Alaska’s highways endanger Alaska’s uniqueness and its scenic beauty,” says the law. “It is the intent of the people of the State of Alaska that Alaska shall forever remain free of billboards.”

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