Is selective enforcement of Alaska’s ban on roadside advertising unconstitutional?

These two photos appear in a lawsuit challenging the state law prohibiting advertising near state highways. Palmer resident Eric Siebels displayed the sign on the left in 2014. He kept the frame in place and displayed the sign on the right this year. The lawsuit says he’s concerned the Department of Transportation will remove the Dunleavy sign. (Photos courtesy Eric Siebels)

lawsuit filed Thursday challenges a law that’s long made Alaska one of four states without billboards along highways. The plaintiffs say the state has unconstitutionally targeted political advertising for removal from roadsides.

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In late July, the state Department of Transportation removed campaign signs. Campaigns complained the law was being enforced inconsistently.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, Palmer resident Eric Siebels and the group Dunleavy for Alaska, which is backing candidate for governor Mike Dunleavy.

ACLU of Alaska spokesman Casey Reynolds said the law is unconstitutional. He said transportation workers removed political signs while leaving nonpolitical signs that were next to them.

“This isn’t about protecting public safety,” Reynolds said. “It’s about the state making it clear they were coming down and deciding to regulate and crack down on political speech.”

Alaska has banned advertising along state highways since 1949, when it was a territory. There are a few exceptions, including for scenic attractions and directions to schools.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said the state reminds campaigns each year about the law.

“We always recognize that advertising is really an important effort and it’s (a) very expensive investment, especially during campaign season,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the state gave notice to campaigns before removing the signs.

“The only time we have an exception to this is when it’s an immediate safety hazard, or it tends to be blocking a line of sight,” Bailey said. “And those signs are usually removed as quickly as possible.”

The law bars advertising within 660 feet of a highway, including all state-owned roads. The prohibition covers both public and private property.

Eric Siebels is the only individual Alaskan who’s a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The lawsuit said that the state didn’t remove a sign in support of Bill Walker that Siebels had on his property four years ago, in 2014. Siebels has a sign supporting Dunleavy this year. To be clear, the state hasn’t removed it. But the lawsuit said he is concerned that the state could.

Alaska has amended the law a few times since it was first enacted. In 1997, the Legislature made an exception for tourism advertising. But 72 percent of Alaskans voted the next year on a ballot measure to reverse the exception.

Lawyer Doug Pope of Anchorage was one of the sponsors of the ballot measure. He said the sponsors wanted to prohibit commercial advertising like billboards.

“There was no intention to stifle political speech,” Pope said.

Pope said he sees a distinction between commercial advertising and campaign signs, and he hopes the courts will too. The ballot measure sponsors focused on billboards.

“We just thought those didn’t belong in Alaska, with its scenic beauty,” Pope said.

Terre Gales, the chairman for Dunleavy for Alaska, said the lawsuit isn’t focused on permanent billboards along highways.

“Keep in mind, (along) some of these state-owned roads, there are actual residences – people’s homes – and so this law, you know, if it’s only enforced on political speech, it just looks really suspicious,” Gales said.

Reynolds, the ACLU spokesman, said the state shouldn’t stop Alaskans from expressing their political views, just because their signs are near roads.

“We believe that the most important thing is the ability of individuals to speak out, particularly on political and public policy issues, and so the state will have to make an argument as to why natural beauty is more important than that,” Reynolds said.

Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said in a statement that the state would review the lawsuit.