‘This Weird Sense of Comradery’: Lollipop Guild Leader Says Hamilton Billboard ‘Paved The Way’ For Their Uphill Battle

Posted

In the middle of a tense stalemate with the city of Chehalis, Lewis County Lollipop Guild founder Kyle Wheeler is still waiting for the go-ahead to erect a progressive billboard next to the controversial Hamilton sign along Interstate 5.

Now, the guild’s old pride sign has been replaced by a large fence sporting a different message: “THERE ARE NO BILLBOARDS IN RUSSIA.”

It’s a departure from the guild’s normal slogans, including “Rural Americans Against Racism,” and “Lewis County Welcomes Everyone.” The new slogan is a nod to the Hamilton billboard’s original owner, Alfred Hamilton, who, in 1967, blasted the same message on his sign — “there are no billboards in Russia.”

It was Hamilton’s response to a federal and state push to remove billboards and beautify the nation’s highway systems, an effort he evidently equated with communism.

What followed was a years-long battle with the state government to maintain his billboard — a fight that supporters rallied behind and characterized as an issue of free speech. Ultimately, Wheeler says it “paved the way” for the guild’s own uphill battle to obtain their own “proverbial billboard.”

“His original protest was regarding government overreach, and the government trying to tell him when and how he was allowed to express his opinion,” Wheeler said. “I feel this weird sense of comradery with him, because we’re sort of fighting for the same things here.”

The Russia message, he said, isn’t a jab at Hamilton, but rather a sort of hat tip to the man who set a precedent that Wheeler intends on following.

Instead of pushing against state or federal rules, Wheeler is up against zoning regulations and variance processes governed by the city of Chehalis. He contends that while city officials have rules and codes to abide by, the small town could easily speed up the process, which began months ago, and “very easily just decide this is a matter of public importance.”

 

Hamilton as Precedent

Alfred Hamilton’s years of fighting against the state to protect his billboard — which over the years has posted largely conservative messages along with more controversial screeds calling Evergreen students “homos,” proclaiming “slavery is peaceful” and more recently echoing debunked birtherism attacks against former President Barack Obama — began in 1970. Throughout the decades, the sign has been labeled as a bastion of free speech by supporters, petition signatories and letter-writers.

Lawsuits in Lewis County Superior Court hinged on the state’s Scenic Vistas Act and the Highway Advertising Control Act, which deemed certain large billboards near highways a public nuisance. At the time, Gov. Dan Evans’ termed some extra-large billboards “abominations.”

The state would also argue that Hamilton’s sign was not a legitimate advertisement, but rather political speech — something Hamilton, a turkey farmer, would refute.

In the middle of the first court battle targeting Hamilton’s sign, a resident all the way in Bellingham wrote to The Chronicle, calling the state’s actions an attempt at “thought control or thought-suppression by curtailing free speech.”



The Chronicle ran a full-page spread in 1971 calling for readers to “fight for freedom,” add their name to a petition, and send in donations to the “Hamilton Billboard Boosters” for Hamilton’s legal defense. The page pulled a quote from Voltaire: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In 2004, when The Chronicle wrote of Hamilton’s passing, surviving relatives described him as a “fighter.” And they were right. The first lawsuit dragged on for years before Hamilton settled in 1974, agreeing to remove the sign.

“Sayonara, Uncle Sam,” read an Aug. 2 headling in The Chronicle. But by December, Hamilton had relocated his sign, which now read, “Hi folks! Hope you missed us like we missed you.”

A second lawsuit by the state prompted, unsurprisingly, more petitions and public outcry. One organizer and local restaurant manager, Dick Bindara, even challenged state Attorney General Slade Gorton, who had filed the suit, to a public debate on the issue.

“Bindara, who never took a debate class in high school, feels he could do well in a confrontation with Gorton,” The Chronicle reported in 1975.

Of course, the state official declined the offer, opting to save his legal arguments for court. But the incident illustrated the level of public support Hamilton enjoyed during his battle with the government. And in 1977, he came out victorious.

“Hamilton was the key witness in the jury trial action. He was questioned, grilled, examined and cross-examined for most of the two days,” The Chronicle reported.

Charles Watts, Hamilton’s attorney, told the jury in closing arguments that Hamilton’s decisions regarding what he put on his advertising billboard was his own business.

 

Drawing Inspiration

The messages that have loomed over I-5 drivers for decades have been the subject of constant criticism, and although Hamilton once described himself to The Chronicle as a “middle-of-the-roader, politically,” his sign has become synonymous with conservative views.

Despite their differing ideologies, Wheeler, in his quest to erect a nearby billboard, feels like he’s asking for the same thing Hamilton was in the ‘70s — not only the ability to erect a billboard, but the support of the public, whose vehement defense of free speech catapulted Hamilton into the spotlight.

“It’s the same folks who have been arguing for 60 years now that whether you agree with it or not, whether public opinion is on your side or not, I’m entitled to the same free speech,” Wheeler said. “And whether 100% of 2% of the population supports the actual messages on the sign I want to erect, you should still support my right to have a sign.”

When asked if he’s prepared for the same years-long feud Hamilton endured, Wheeler responded: “I’m young, I’ve got the time.”