Advertising or free speech?

  • Thursday, September 3, 2015 4:40pm
  • Opinion

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities this week sent out a press release reminding Alaskans of the state laws guiding campaign signs.

The reminder is timely, as the Kenai Peninsula Borough municipal election is a month away, and campaign signs already are popping up along central peninsula roadways.

In its release, DOT notes that signs placed in the state’s rights-of-way are unauthorized encroachments. It further quotes Alaska statute, saying that “Outdoor advertising may not be erected or maintained within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way.” The statutes cited spring from a 1998 ballot measure declaring that “Alaska be forever free of billboards.” The statute defines outdoor advertising as “any outdoor sign, display, or device used to advertise, attract attention, or inform and which is visible to a person on the main-traveled way of a highway of the interstate.”

The statutes apply to all state-maintained roadways, which on the central Kenai Peninsula includes the Sterling Highway, Kenai Spur Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, among others.

While we tend to agree with voters who, 17 years ago, determined that the “presence of billboards visible from Alaska’s highways endanger Alaska’s uniqueness and its scenic beauty,” we have concerns when applying the statutes to political signs — specifically that when an individual posts a sign in a support of a candidate or ballot measure, it is an act of constitutionally protected free speech. Freedom of speech is addressed in Article 1 of the Alaska constitution, and in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly, it is reasonable to keep campaign signs out of the right-of-way, where they may block a driver’s view and become a safety hazard.

But the state needs a more reasonable approach to political signs placed on private or commercial property — particularly in light of the fact that state agencies do not have the means to enforce the regulations consistently. Indeed, under the DOT’s interpretation of the statute, it would appear to be against the law for campaign supporters to wave signs at intersections of state-maintained roads.

We encourage candidates and their supporters to use common sense when placing campaign signs in the next month. We hope the state of Alaska does the same with the statutes governing them.

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