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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks Court to Hold Government Accountable for Violating Citizens’ First Amendment Right to Political Expression

LAKELAND, Fla. — The Rutherford Institute is challenging attempts by the government to sidestep accountability and avoid having to make financial restitution for violating the citizenry’s First Amendment right to political expression.

Although a state circuit court found that government officials in Punta Gorda, Fla., acted unconstitutionally when it fined two protesters a total of $3000 for displaying political messages stating “F@#k Biden,” “F@#k Trump,” and “F@#k Policing 4 Profit” in violation of the city’s sign ordinance, the court refused to make the government financially liable for violating the protesters’ First Amendment right to political expression. In appealing to Florida’s Sixth District Court of Appeal in Massey v. City of Punta Gorda, Fla. and Sheets v. City of Punta Gorda, Fla., Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that shielding the government from accountability for its wrongful actions will only encourage government entities to believe they can freely violate the constitutional rights of its citizens without having to pay a penny or suffer any consequences.

“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.”

In June 2021, the City of Punta Gorda, Fla. amended its ordinances to prohibit any sign containing “indecent speech,” which was defined 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 carried 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 due to displaying the words “F@#k Policing 4 Profit,” “F@#k Trump,” and “F@#k Biden.” 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.” The City’s Code Enforcement Board penalized them with $3,000 in fines.

Rutherford Institute attorneys subsequently secured a First Amendment victory before the Charlotte County Circuit Court, which ruled against the City, noting that the ordinance was “designed to cause the preemptive self-silencing of speakers whose messages are entitled to constitutional protection.” However, while the Circuit Court found that the ordinance was unconstitutional, it refused to make the City of Punta Gorda reimburse the more than $2,000 in costs for filing fees and transcripts and also pay for attorneys’ fees associated with defending the protesters’ First Amendment rights. In an appeal to Florida’s Sixth District Court of Appeal, The Rutherford Institute warns that making protestors pay substantial court costs, especially when the costs end up being more than the fine itself, could create a significant chilling effect, causing others to silence themselves or just pay the unconstitutional fines for exercising their freedom of speech against the government.

Affiliate attorney Phares Heindl assisted The Rutherford Institute with the opening appellate briefs in Massey v. City of Punta Gorda and Sheets v. City of Punta Gorda.

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.

Case History

September 27, 2022 • Free Speech Victory: Court Overturns $3000 in Fines Against Protesters Who Displayed Controversial Anti-Biden, Anti-Trump Political Signs 

March 31, 2022 • The Right to Political Expression Under Fire: Protesters Fined $3000 Under Florida City’s Ban on ‘Indecent’ Political Speech 

August 04, 2021 • Florida Town Bans ‘Indecent’ Political Speech on Signs & Clothing, Fines Protesters $3000 for Displaying Flags Proclaiming ‘F--k Biden’


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