On The Front Lines
Florida Town Bans ‘Indecent’ Political Speech on Signs & Clothing, Fines Protesters $3000 for Displaying Flags Proclaiming ‘F--k Biden’
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. —Two Florida residents have been fined $3000 for displaying protest flags with the political message “F--k Biden” in violation of a city ordinance banning signs, clothing and other graphic displays containing words that the city deems “indecent.” In coming to the defense of Andrew Sheets and Richard Massey, attorneys with The Rutherford Institute challenged the City of Punta Gorda’s ban on indecent speech as unconstitutionally vague and a violation of the First Amendment’s safeguards for political speech that may not be censored or punished by the government. After a contentious hearing in which the Code Enforcement Board refused to acknowledge the constitutional concerns raised, the Board fined Massey and Sheets $500 and $2500 respectively. The Rutherford Institute plans to appeal the imposition of the fines.
Affiliate attorney Phares Heindl is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Massey and Sheets’ 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. “Ultimately, the First Amendment assures every individual the right to speak truth to power using whatever nonviolent means are at their disposal. As comedian Lenny Bruce—a lifelong champion of free speech—remarked, ‘If you can’t say ‘F--k’ you can’t say, ‘F--k the government.’”
On June 2, 2021, the City Council of Punta Gorda, Fla., enacted amendments to its ordinances governing signs, flags and other graphic displays prohibiting “[a]ny sign that contains obscene language or graphics; and any sign containing fighting words or indecent speech which is legible from any right-of-way or within any public space, and which can potentially be viewed by children under the age of 17.” The ban extends not only to signs and flags, but to words appearing on clothing. 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.” Believing the ban on “indecent speech” to be a violation of his First Amendment rights, Andrew Sheets, a long-time advocate for government and police accountability, opted to challenge the City’s decision to prohibit speech it deemed unacceptable by exercising his right to political speech. On several occasions, Sheets stationed himself in public areas in Punta Gorda displaying protest flags with the words “F--k Biden” and other provocative political messages. Sheets was cited for violating the new ordinance and assessed separate fines of $100 and $200 for displaying indecent speech. Richard Massey, also angered by the City’s attempt to censor speech, similarly opted to exercise his right to political speech by displaying a “F--k Biden” sign outside City Hall. Massey was cited and assessed a fine of $100. As allowed by City ordinance, Sheets and Massey challenged the fines by requesting a hearing before the City’s Code Enforcement Board. Coming to Sheets and Massey’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that the ordinance’s ban on indecent speech is unconstitutionally vague and a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on content- and viewpoint-based regulation of speech by the government. The Board refused to consider the constitutional arguments, found the men guilty, and upped the fines to $3000.
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.