2 candidates challenge restrictions on the display of campaign signs at Arkansas’ Capitol

A 7-year-old law restricting how political candidates and public officials can display campaign signs on their cars at the state Capitol violates freedom of speech protections, say two Republican office-seekers, both attorneys, who filed a lawsuit Thursday.

Lawyers Chris Corbitt of Conway and Robert Steinbuch of Little Rock petitioned Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright to strike down Arkansas Code 7-1-114 as a violation of free speech protections guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.

“This case involves the right of a citizen, namely a candidate, to display a campaign sign on his vehicle while on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol,” the suit states. “This law regulates political speech on a private vehicle that happens to be on the Arkansas State Capitol grounds.”

The law, Act 1280 of 2015, has never been challenged in court. Corbitt and Steinbuch are suing the state and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in his official capacity. Steinbuch is a recognized authority on Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, while the lawyers have recently drawn public attention with lawsuits against Little Rock, the Game and Fish Department and Pulaski County over the right to carry firearms on public property.

The Election Code law bars candidates or public officials from displaying campaign materials — like signs and banners — larger than 12 inches by 12 inches on vehicles on Capitol grounds. Violators face fines of up to $150 from the state Ethics Commission. The average bumper sticker is 3 inches by 11.5 inches.

The attorneys want the judge to rule that candidates and public officials can display any size sign, along with recovery of their costs for filing suit.

“This court should declare that the State of Arkansas violated the rights of the Defendants to free speech,” according to the suit. “Defendants under color of law deprive plaintiffs of Constitutional and statutory rights.”

As an example, the suit lists the complaint filed last month against Republican Eddie Joe Williams, a candidate for secretary of state. A Benton Democrat and critic of Williams’ campaign for office, Aaron Conrad, reported that he complained about the candidate parking a car with Williams’ campaign logo on the grounds twice, once in a state police parking spot.

Williams, a former state senator who voted for the prohibition, told reporters he’d made an honest mistake by forgetting the logo was on his vehicle when he stopped at the Capitol on election business on two occasions.

Williams is not a party to the free-speech litigation.

Williams is challenging incumbent Secretary of State John Thurston for the GOP nomination in the May 24 primary. Early voting begins Monday.

The winner will face the Democratic nominee, either Anna Beth Gorman or Josh Price, in the general election in November.

Steinbuch, a professor at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, faces Jon Wickliffe, director of business development in Arkansas for Vantage Health Plans and a member of the state Economic Development Commission, in this month’s Republican primary.

The winner of the primary will challenge incumbent Democratic state Rep. Andrew Collins of Little Rock in November for the House seat that represents District 73.

Corbitt is running against fellow Conway lawyer Matt Brown, a Faulkner County justice of the peace, in the state House District 55 primary, which will decide who will oppose the winner of the Democratic primary between Lakeslia Mosley and Dee Sanders, both of Conway, in November.

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