San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney candidates fight for freedom of speech

Two candidates running for prosecuting attorney are battling for freedom of speech rights in San Juan County.

On one side, local attorney Nick Power says a signage code is barring his liberties, whereas his opponent, incumbent Randy Gaylord, says Power is questioning the rights of elected officials to speak their minds.

The latest update in this litigious battle was on July 6 when Federal District Court Judge Marsha J. Pechman, who denied Power’s request for a temporary restraining order against the county.

Power argued the county is infringing on his First Amendment rights by enforcing a code that limits the posting of political signage except for 45 days within an election. The county maintains it has never enforced the ordinance.

After Power won a temporary restraining order in San Juan County Superior Court in May, county auditor F. Milene Henley wrote a guest column in the Journal that the code is more of a guideline alerting residents when its appropriate for them to remove the signs, like when an election is over.

Power responded several weeks later on June 19 to Henley by writing his own guest column where he stated the county has been violating First Amendment rights since the code was enacted in 1998.

According to the prosecutor’s office, Gaylord said the county council should be able to make any necessary corrections to the county ordinance and thereby clean up the books. On May 25, council agreed they should consider amending the ordinance, which is part of the land use code, to not limit the timeframe for posting signs.

Power also stated that Henley acknowledged “that the ordinance is unconstitutional but makes judgments about what type of speech is appropriate for candidates and the public at large to make.”

Her exact statements were, “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.”

She also points to the pro and con arguments of political signs.

On June 4, the prosecutor’s office decided to transfer the case to Federal District Court in Seattle because of the focus on the right of the auditor to express an opinion.

“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,” said Gaylord, who is running for his sixth consecutive re-election, after initially winning the seat in 1994.

Power claims that the ordinance has helped Gaylord win his elected position over the last 15 years.

Gaylord has run unopposed since 2002.