CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. — In a First Amendment victory for political free speech, a state circuit court has overturned fines totaling $3000 against two protesters for displaying “[email protected]#k Biden” and other political signs in violation of a Florida city’s ban on “indecent” speech, which the court found to be unconstitutional.
The ruling by the Charlotte County Circuit Court comes in response to two legal actions, Massey v. City of Punta Gorda, Fla. and Sheets v. City of Punta Gorda, Fla., filed by The Rutherford Institute. Institute attorneys had appealed to the court on behalf of two protesters fined a total of $3000 by the Code Enforcement Board for the City of Punta Gorda, Fla., for displaying political messages stating “[email protected]#k Biden,” “[email protected]#k Trump,” and “[email protected]#k Policing 4 Profit” in violation of the city’s sign ordinance. In challenging the ordinance, Institute attorneys argued that the ban on “indecent speech” violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government content-based and viewpoint regulations which censor and punish speech.
Affiliate attorney Phares Heindl assisted in advocating for the protesters’ right to political expression under the First Amendment.
“The right of political free speech is the basis of all liberty. No matter what their political persuasion might be, every American has a First Amendment right to protest government programs or policies with which they might disagree,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “As the Supreme Court recognized, laws of this sort empower the government to suppress unpopular ideas or information and manipulate the public debate through coercion, which is exactly the kind of tyranny the First Amendment was intended to prohibit.”
On June 2, 2021, the City Council of Punta Gorda, Fla., amended its ordinances to prohibit “any sign containing…indecent speech which is legible from any public right-of-way or within any public space, and which can potentially be viewed by children under the age of 17.” The ban extends to words appearing on flags and clothing, as well, and does not actually have to be seen by a child to constitute a violation. The ordinance defines “indecent speech” as “language or graphics that depict or describe sexual or excretory activities or organs in a manner that is offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” Each violation can carry up to a $5,000 fine. During the first month of the new ordinance being enacted, Andrew Sheets was cited four times by police for violating the ordinance by displaying phrases which said “F—k Policing 4 Profit,” “F—k Trump,” “F—k Biden,” etc. Likewise, Richard Massey was cited for violating the ordinance by displaying a sign which said “F—k Punta Gorda, trying to illegally kill free speech.”
At a hearing before the Code Enforcement Board, Sheets and Massey explained that they were expressing their frustration with the government and its attempt to restrict their free speech rights. Despite disagreement among Board members about how to determine whether the words were offensive by community standards and an inability to assemble an exhaustive list of offensive words that would violate the ordinance, the Board ruled against Sheets and Massey, punishing them with $3,000 in fines. Rutherford Institute attorneys subsequently appealed to the Charlotte County Circuit Court. In ruling against the City, the court noted that the ordinance was “designed to cause the preemptive self-silencing of speakers whose messages are entitled to constitutional protection.”
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
Circuit Court’s opinions:
The Rutherford Institute’s briefs:
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