County: Free speech prevails for highway sign
Senior Staff Writer
John Aschim of Oakland told the Douglas County Board of Commissioners Wednesday that the right-wing group the Oath Keepers should not be allowed an Adopt-a-Highway sign near Roseburg announcing their pledge to regularly clean up a section of county road.
He said the group is a political organization with links to white supremacists, and that its inclusion in the Adopt-a-Highway program is a black eye on the county.
But County Counsel Paul Meyer said under the state constitution’s free speech provision, the county appears not to have a choice.
Aschim said the Oath Keepers are members of a burgeoning and newly active Patriot Movement and that they are anti-democratic.
“I believe allowing them the Adopt-a-Highway program privilege is a blemish on our county. It will become known and it will become widely publicized throughout the state. It’s only a matter of time,” he said.
Other county residents submitted emails opposing Oath Keepers’ participation that were read into the record Wednesday.
Connie Page of Roseburg wrote that the organization is a political group with an agenda to promote conspiracy theories and that it has spread violent messages, such as suggesting the late Sen. John McCain should be hung by the neck.
“No wonder we cannot get young people to stay or move here,” she wrote. “It is a lesson in how not to run a county.”
Stacey McLaughlin, of Myrtle Creek, wrote that the Oath Keeper sign sent a bad message about Douglas County.
“Our community does not need a more disparaging reputation and they certainly do not represent the views of many of us who live here. Every mayor in this county ought to be standing against the ugliness of this type of advertising,” she wrote.
The commissioners didn’t take a vote on the issue, but asked county staff to look into changing the county’s Adopt-a-Highway policy to bring it in line with free speech protections.
The county’s had its Adopt-a-Highway program since 1990, and its policy hasn’t been updated since 1994, Public Works Director Scott Adams said. He said the Oath Keepers joined the program in 2015. Their sign is about 100 feet beyond Roseburg city limits on County Road 6, which is the continuation of Garden Valley Road.
The county’s policy clearly states that no political organization can use the program in the campaign for a political cause. That would be an inappropriate use of county funds, it says.
But Meyer said an Oregon Court of Appeals decision in a Portland case indicates that governments can’t discriminate based on the political content of a message. That case involved the TriMet transit system’s rejection of the Karuk Tribe’s advertisement opposing a hydroelectric project. TriMet’s policy was to accept only commercial ads, not political ones.
The court said TriMet’s policy violated the state’s constitution. It said governments offering advertising space can’t reject ads just because they have a political message, Meyer said.
Commissioner Tim Freeman asked Adams to investigate whether the Oath Keepers are still maintaining the stretch of road. If not, he said, that would be a solution to the problem.
He said 41 organizations have adopted stretches of county road and it would be useful to update the list so it only includes those still picking up trash. Many county roads have not been adopted.
Freeman also suggested Adams investigate how other counties have handled similar problems.
Aschim said after the meeting he still wants to see the signs come down. He believes it’s morally unconscionable to allow the Oath Keepers a public forum like the Adopt-a-Highway program.
“It’s wrong to let evil things like this go unchecked,” he said.