On The Front Lines
The Right to Political Expression Under Fire: Protesters Fined $3000 Under Florida City’s Ban on ‘Indecent’ Political Speech
CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. — The Rutherford Institute is challenging a Florida city’s ordinance which resulted in two protesters being fined $3000 for displaying political messages stating “F—k Biden,” “F—k Trump,” and “F—k Policing 4 Profit” in violation of a city ordinance banning signs, clothing and other graphic displays containing words that the city deems “indecent.” In appealing the rulings by the Code Enforcement Board for the City of Punta Gorda, Fla., Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the City’s ban on “indecent speech” is unconstitutionally vague and violates First Amendment safeguards for political speech which may not be censored or punished by the government.
“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. Moreover, as Lenny Bruce 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., 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.” Rutherford Institute attorneys defended Sheets’ and Massey’s right to political expression at a hearing before the Code Enforcement Board. Both Sheets and Massey explained that they did not use any of the words in a sexual manner, but rather that the words were used to express their frustration with the government and with its attempt to restrict their right to freedom of speech. Despite disagreement among Board members about how to determine whether the words were “offensive as measured by community standards,” and despite the city’s inability to assemble an exhaustive list of offensive words that would violate the ordinance, the Board found Sheets and Massey to be in violation of the ordinance and punished them with fines for each instance. On appeal, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that the ordinance’s ban on indecent speech violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on content- and viewpoint-based regulations of speech by the government and is unconstitutionally vague because it fails to provide fair notice of what words would result in a penalty.
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.