Callahan's battle only the first for attorney

A landmark legal battle in Oregon that resolved a billboard dispute at Callahan's Restaurant has boosted a Jacksonville attorney's career and renown as he fights sign ordinances in dozens of cities and counties.

Alan Herson has been in the national spotlight lately in an ongoing legal battle to allow a new sign in San Carlos, Calif., that depicts Sarah Palin and supports her bid for the presidency in 2012. A federal judge ruled in October that the city should stop enforcing part of its sign ordinance because it restricts free speech.

Herson, 63, is fond of taunting government bureaucrats by paraphrasing the famous Superman quote, "I'm fighting for truth, justice and the American way."

"It gets the opponents really upset when I say that," he said.

Herson said many of the more than a dozen cases he's filed in California and Oregon have been settled because it is difficult to craft a sign ordinance without stomping on the First Amendment's right to free speech.

In Jackson County, Herson fought for Callahan's right to erect an illuminated sign off Interstate 5 near the Siskiyou Summit, which was opposed by county officials and the state of Oregon.

"If he hadn't have stepped in, we

wouldn't have had any sign," Callahan's owner Ron Bergquist said. "We wouldn't have been in business."

The Oregon Supreme Court in 2006 determined a 1971 law limiting billboards outside of commercial or industrial areas that advertise something not available on the premises was unconstitutional.

Bergquist, who started his fight in 1996, said he built the sign without permission after the county rejected it. At the time, he said he vowed to fight against any government entity that threatened to take it down because it would violate his free speech. "We will protect our property with firearms if necessary," he said.

Bergquist said he pays $30,000 a year in taxes on his property, zoned interstate commercial, so he thinks that should have given him more sway with government officials when he erected a sign designed to attract visitors from the freeway.

While he thinks sign ordinances conflict with free speech, Bergquist said he's conflicted himself about the idea of allowing billboards everywhere in Oregon.

"I value the beauty of Oregon," he said. "I don't want to see freeway billboard signs every 100 feet."

Herson himself lives just outside of Jacksonville, which is not known for a proliferation of signs.

His latest battle is in San Carlos, where he has been fighting for the right for his son to erect a billboard. The city has banned billboards since 1991.

The suit has drawn national attention because the billboard owner wants to put up a Sarah Palin-for-president photo in a liberal area.

Herson said he believes he will prevail in San Carlos because sign ordinances face an uphill battle against free speech.

"Governments tend to be restrictive and order people around, and they shouldn't," he said.

Contrary to the naysayers, getting rid of Oregon's sign law hasn't led to a flood of new billboards, Herson said.

"Oregon survived the overturn of that law," he said.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said it has been difficult to craft a state law that could address billboards without infringing on free speech in light of the Supreme Court ruling, but that the Legislature likely will keep working on it.

Though some billboards have sprouted up in Oregon since the Supreme Court ruling, Buckley said, "It has not resulted in an explosion of billboards."

Bernie Zieminski, a property owner who has an "onlineauction.com" sign near Gold Hill, said he doesn't know Herson personally, but the Supreme Court ruling meant that he could keep his billboard.

"That pretty much shut everybody up," he said.

Both the county and the state wanted Zieminski to remove it before the ruling. Recently, Zieminski had the sign replaced because the old one was fading.

"After we kicked their butt, they've stayed out of our hair," he said.

Reach Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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