Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Major intersections in Waipahu, like this one at Farrington Highway and Awanui Street, have become centers for early campaigning with the use of political signs.

Campaign signs out
on lawns, legal or not

A law limits posting such signs
to 45 days before an election

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

Political campaign signs popping up around the island are posted illegally.

Or are they? It's a question for candidates to ponder as they gear up for what some are calling one of the most important elections in decades.

A state statute prohibits the posting of political signs more than 45 days before an election and 10 days afterward. But a 1996 opinion from the Attorney General's Office calls the law "unenforceable and unconstitutional" because it violates the free-speech rights.

GOP lieutenant governor candidate Dalton Tanonaka, a rookie campaigner, was unaware of the law or the opinion. A neighbor in East Honolulu has one sign up in the yard and Tanonaka was working on getting more.

"So what are people supposed to do?" Tanonaka asked. "Certainly, you would not like to create a blight on the environment, but at the same time you want to be able to exercise your right to get the message out."

The Attorney General's Office, which the statute designated with enforcing the law, is not doing so.

"Even if it's on the books, it probably violates the First Amendment and therefore probably is not enforceable although there hasn't been a direct challenge to it yet," said Russell Suzuki, Education Division supervisor for the Attorney General's Office.

Asked what candidates should do, however, Suzuki said they should call the state Office of Elections.

"We don't give legal advice to private citizens," he said.

Chief Elections Officer Dwayne Yoshina said he will ask state attorneys for an opinion to clarify the issue before election season heats up.

Civil rights attorney Earle Partington called it "a no-brainer" in saying the law is wrong.

"I think any prosecutor who prosecuted it would have a risk of being sued," he said.

Nonetheless, Democratic Party of Hawaii Chairwoman Lorraine Akiba said she would suggest her candidates not put up signs until the 45-day period begins.

"We don't encourage people to violate the law," and in this case "it's technically illegal," Akiba said. "What's important is for people to walk their districts and get in touch with their communities."

State Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Waipahu) said he abides by the law each election and does not put up signs until 45 days before an election even though he's aware of the state opinion.

"We do have a current law that has not been adjudicated in the courts," he said. "The intent of the law was that political candidates would not put signs year-round. I don't think that's what the public wants."

Mary Steiner, executive director for the Outdoor Circle, said her group has asked candidates to pledge to not put up signs and about 40 do so each election season. "It's a visual intrusion," Steiner said, adding, "We have more complaints, and earlier, every election year."

Micah Kane, Akiba's GOP counterpart, said that if state attorneys believe it's OK, "we don't want to hold our candidates back from campaigning in the most critical election in the history of our state."

Yard signs are an important tool, particularly for those without name recognition, Kane said.

Arturo Reyes, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who acknowledges being one of the unknowns, began putting signs up around the island during the 2001 holiday season.

Prohibiting free speech is absurd, Reyes said. "It's like a communist country."

Sen. Cal Kawamoto (D, Waipahu) said the state's sign statute is illegal and should be repealed.

"It's personal property, it's freedom of speech," he said.

Kawamoto earlier this week offered a $1,000 reward for the arrest of people who have stolen signs in Pearl City, including his campaign signs.

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