A lawsuit filed against the state by a civil-rights group -- as well as backers of a challenger to Gov. Bill Walker -- got its first hearing Wednesday. 

The filing comes after the Department of Transportation's crackdown on enforcement of a state law that led to the seizure of dozens of campaign signs before last month's primary elections. 

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to immediately block enforcement of a 1998 statute under which the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities removed signs. Initial court documents submitted by the plaintiffs also seek to have the statute declared unconstitutional.  

The state statute in question, which affects all road signs and not just campaign signs, was enacted to prevent billboards from being posted along state roads. According to state Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills, it “prohibits any signs within the state’s rights-of-way as well as signs posted on public or commercial property that are within 660 feet or legible from the road.”

The American Civil Liberties of Union of Alaska (ACLU) suit has been joined by Dunleavy for Alaska, a group backing GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunleavy, as well as Palmer resident Eric Siebels.

It cites Siebels’ 2014 decision to place a roadside campaign sign on his property for Walker, which was unchallenged by the state, before posting a sign supporting Dunleavy this year.

After seeing a state crew earlier this month mark a nearby sign backing Republican state House candidate Pamela Goode as illegal, but not an adjacent sign advertising vegetables, the suit said, "Mr. Siebels is now fearful that DOT will flag the political sign on his property, and that he must choose between exercising his right to free speech and rising possible fines and/or criminal sanction."

Officials with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced plans for an enforcement "sweep" of signs in July, giving candidates time to remove any that were illegal.

According to DOTPF's Shannon McCarthy, state officials marked about 240 illegally placed signs, including 50 that posed a public-safety threat. Just 22 of the latter group remained to be seized at the end of the month. 

Wednesday, during an oral argument in front of Anchorage Superior Court Judge Herman Walker Jr., the parties agreed that signs in the State's right of way that present a public safety issue should be removed and signs on private property should be left alone, but it's signs that are within the State's right of way that do not pose a threat to public safety that are now in a legal gray area. 

"Our argument is: If you own the property and you're not putting up something that's a safety concern, whether it's inside of the right of way or outside of the right of way, a temporary political sign is your right. You can put it up and express your speech," said ACLU of Alaska spokesperson Casey Reynolds following the hearing.  

Reynolds noted a common misconception is that property inside the State's right of way is public property, but in many cases, the right of way is privately owned and utilized by the state through an easement. 

"The plaintiffs have an interesting theory about management of the right of way, and the State's belief is that the voters and the Federal Highway Administration have said: 'You are not to have bill boards or signs on the highway rights of way.' They create safety hazards and they create visual blight, and to allow any would be to thwart the will of the Alaska voters," said Assistant Attorney General Michael Schechter, who represented the State in Wednesday's hearing. 

Judge Walker Jr. said he would rule on the temporary order "soon." 

Editor's note: An initial version of this story inaccurately listed the year of the state's sign statute as 1988, not 1998.

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