Republican Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci is taking the Montana Department of Transportation to court over its enforcement of the Montana Outdoor Advertising Act, alleging in a lawsuit filed this week that the law’s restrictions on the amount of time supporters of a candidate can display campaign signs after an election is concluded violates the First Amendment.
The lawsuit says a Valley County Pinocci supporter named Jeff Pattison received a letter from the department on March 7 directing him to remove a Pinocci campaign sign from his property, or else the department would have it removed at Pattison’s expense. A business in Malta displaying a Pinocci campaign sign received a similar letter, Pinocci said.
State law gives MDT authority to make and enforce rules governing political signs on private property. The department’s rule says political signs must be removed within 14 days of the relevant election.
Pinocci distributed the signs as part of his 2022 campaign for re-election to the PSC’s district 1. His lawsuit doesn’t contend that the signs have been up for fewer than 14 days. Rather, it alleges that the state’s outdoor advertising law imposes an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on political speech. Property owners can leave for-sale signs up indefinitely, the suit argues — so why should campaign signs be treated differently?
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“I get a phone call that my supporter says they got a letter where the state government’s going to cross on their property without permission, seize property and then turn around and bill the property owner and myself,” Pinocci told Montana Free Press Friday. “I’ve never seen that kind of state government overreach, and keep in mind I’ve been pretty involved in politics for 30 years.”
According to the lawsuit, the department’s rules on campaign signs don’t meet the strict scrutiny standard that courts use to evaluate content-based restrictions: that the law must be the “least restrictive means” of advancing “a compelling government interest.”
Moreover, Pinocci believes the department is targeting his supporters. He said he’s seen signs for past candidates ranging from Penny Ronning to Donald Trump still standing, but hasn’t heard about enforcement actions in those instances.
Pinocci said he called Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter — a self-proclaimed “constitutional sheriff” who believes federal and state government authorities are secondary to county sheriffs — and Slaughter told him that if a state agent tries to come onto private property to remove a campaign sign, he’ll arrest them.
“You can’t have an agency do this paid for by the state,” Pinocci said. “I can’t even get the damn potholes fixed. My sign doesn’t say ‘elect Randy Pinocci,’ doesn’t say ‘vote for Randy Pinocci,’ it just says, ‘Randy Pinocci, Public Service Commissioner.’”
MDT did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The lawsuit says Pinocci reached out to Pattison and other supporters after the election to see if they wanted him to remove the campaign signs.
“Pattison and many other supporters declined Pinocci’s offer,” the suit says. “Instead, they continue to display Pinocci’s signs on their property. They are doing so because they regard Pinocci as a hard-working public servant with a keen intellect and want to encourage him to run for higher office, such as the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Indeed, the lawsuit could be interpreted as a soft launch for a Pinocci congressional run. Montana has two U.S. House districts. Pinocci resides in the eastern district, which is currently represented by Republican Matt Rosendale.
Some political observers expect Rosendale to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2024, leaving the House seat open if Rosendale wins.
“I had a meeting with Rosendale,” Pinocci told MTFP. “It seems like he’s probably the guy to run against Tester. I said, if you do that, I’ll run to replace you.”
He even offered to announce his campaign jointly with Rosendale if Rosendale declares for the Senate, he said, though he emphasized that he would not challenge the incumbent Republican for his House seat.
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