Political sign case commentary headed to federal court

San Juan County has regulations limiting the posting of political signs to a 45-day window prior to an election. This is unconstitutional according to attorney Nicholas Power. He filed suit against the county and prevailed. But that is not the end of it. A May 30 press release about the regulations by Auditor Milene Henley has triggered further action. San Juan County Prosecutor has decided to have the lawsuit transferred to federal court.

“This case started as one about political signs, but that part is over. It’s now about the right of elected officials to express their opinion,” said Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord. “The case is being removed to federal court because those courts have traditionally been the forum for resolving questions regarding the right to speak out by any citizen including elected officials.”

Prior to Henley's May 30, 2018 press release, San Juan County Superior Court Judge Kathryn Loring on May 21, 2018 had ruled in favor of Power and entered a temporary restraining order preventing San Juan County from enforcing San Juan County Code 18.40.400(c).

Power argued that the code provision limiting signage to a 45-day period prior to election was an unconstitutional infringement of his First Amendment rights.

In her order, Judge Loring wrote, "Plaintiff had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success." And further indicated that Power was entitled to immediate relief because of nature of his constitutional injury. the county was also ordered to show cause why the restraining order should not continue. A hearing was set for June 1, 2018.

On May 30, 2018, Auditor Henley sent an email from her county account with the subject line "Press Release regarding political signs" to local media outlets. She noted in the body of the email that "The attached is really more of an op-ed piece than “news,” so do with it as you will." The full text of the press release is posted at the bottom of this article.

On June 1, Henley's press release was mentioned at the hearing. Subsequently Power filed a lawsuit naming the county and Henley as defendants.

On Monday June 4, 2018, the County removed the case to federal court in Seattle.

According to Gaylord, in the claim over the 45-day time for political signs, Judge Loring was informed that the time limits have never been enforced. At the June 1 hearing, Gaylord proposed and the court entered an order confirming that the county will not enforce the land use rules regarding political signs. That order will remain in effect for the duration of the federal case.

Gaylord added that the county Council should be able to make any necessary corrections to the county ordinance and thereby clean up the books. The council members discussed the ordinance at a special May 25, 2018 council meeting, and announced their desire to amend the ordinance. The council will further discuss a proposed ordinance amending SJCC 18.40.400(C) on June 12, 2018.

PRESS RELEASE - May 30, 2018

It’s election time, and with that comes the annual crop of political signs, popping up like pesky dandelions across the countryside. We’ve been fortunate in San Juan County. A well-meaning ordinance – now de-toothed by a recent court action – combined with strong local sentiment has kept our sign infection at a minimum. Political signs, according to San Juan County land use code, are permitted, so long as they are put up not more than forty-five days before an election and taken down within three days after. It seemed like a good idea back in 1998, when the ordinance was adopted. Nobody wanted to see the landscape permanently blighted with signs, especially in a community such as ours, a place people come for the natural environment and rural appearance. Constraining signs to a well-defined time period seemed like a reasonable compromise.

Political signs do serve a purpose. In a rural area, where radio or TV spots aren’t practical, yard signs may be the only way for a candidate to get his or her name out there. Anecdotal stories about the unexpected election of candidates with no qualifications but familiar-sounding names suggest that people are, indeed, more likely to vote for a name they’ve seen often than for one they’ve never seen.

Political strategists say that supporters love political signs. Supporters of a measure or a candidate may not have time to campaign, but they can show their allegiance by sticking a sign in their yard. A corollary of this phenomenon is that some voters are influenced less by the content of signs than by their location. If someone they respect is proudly sporting a yard sign, the voter may be more inclined to vote the same way.

Other political strategists opine that signs have little, if any, effect on how people vote. The small effect they do have may be offset by the votes they lose because of other voters’ distaste for signs. Resources spent buying and locating signs could better be used, many campaign managers argue, on doorbelling and direct mail. As an administrator of elections, I like yard signs because they remind people there’s an election coming up. Not so much in some mainland locations, where signs go up eighteen months before an election. But San Juan County’s law – given recent events, let’s just call it a “guideline” – because it limits the duration of the signage, effectively alerts people that it’s almost time to vote.

Of course, the reason courts have struck down San Juan County’s, as well as other, political signage laws is that limiting signage infringes on free speech. Like babies and apple pie, free speech is something you don’t mess with.

San Juan County’s political sign ordinance has never been enforced. Still, it has become a time-honored local tradition to limit the amount of time political signs are displayed, and to politely remove them as soon as possible after an election is over. We may someday look back on those days wistfully. Or maybe a short-lived law will have created an enduring local tradition. Only time, and candidates, will tell.

1 comment

  • Meaghan Rader
    Meaghan Rader Wednesday, 06 June 2018 08:16 Comment Link

    Having read Milene Henley’s above letter, I fully agree that political signs, aka roadside spam, don’t need to be up more than 45 days prior to an election. To expand the spam window serves no purpose & only increases the potential of the signs turning into litter. Posting signs outside of those guidelines will not help you earn our votes.


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