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Punta Gorda sign ordinance remains controversial

  In June of 2021, Punta Gorda resident Richard Massey protested the new sign ordinance on the steps of city hall. He held up an "F- Joe Biden" sign and was fined $500 under the new code.
Sabrina Salovitz
In June of 2021, Punta Gorda resident Richard Massey protested the new sign ordinance on the steps of city hall. He held up an "F- Joe Biden" sign and was fined $500 under the new code that banned indecent speech.

Punta Gorda City passed an ordinance back in June of 2021 to ban indecent language on flags, lawn signs, clothing and other things that are legible from public spaces. The new code was passed in response to an upcropping of vulgar signage during the election season.

When the ordinance was first announced there was significant outcry, including protests and demonstrations. Opponents of the code claim that it is an infringement on their right to free speech.

“Although it was well intended, it flies in the face of the First Amendment,” Chair of the Charlotte County Republican Party Gene Murtha said. “Being Republicans, we believe in our Constitution and the First Amendment guarantees free speech and I think the ordinance went up right against the right that we have as American citizens.”

According to Assistant City Manager Melissa Reichert the code only prohibits signage containing “fighting words” and “indecent speech” that is viewable from public spaces.

Chair of the Charlotte County Democratic Party Teresa Jenkins believes the city did the right thing by passing the ordinance.

“Obscenity is not protected under the First Amendment,” she said. “There's no right to have such obscene language viewable by the public. Anything that might incite any type of lawless action would be inappropriate.”

Jenkins said that the sign ordinance is not a political issue, rather it is a matter of maintaining the community atmosphere of the city.

“When you have obscenities being allowed, that doesn't make it a very nice place to live anymore,” she said. “People may say that this is not a community, that I feel uncomfortable or even unsafe living here any longer.”

Reichert explained that the City Council adopted the sign code with the belief that the standards and requirements were reasonable, effective, consistent, content-neutral and non-discriminatory. Despite this, debate around the ordinance has an evident political divide, with the general belief being that the code was designed to combat the abundant “F- Joe Biden” signs that popped up following the 2020 election.

The city has handed out fines for violation of the sign ordinance. One resident, Andrew Sheets, was ordered to pay over $2000 in fines from his multiple violations. He took his case up with the Code Enforcement Board back in July and the citations he received were found to be valid.

Sheets is not the only resident to have challenged the ordinance. Richard Massey spent two Mondays holding up a sign with the F-word on it outside Punta Gorda City Hall back when the code was first passed. His appeal to the Code Enforcement Board found that the $500 citation he received from his protest was valid. He has since made an appeal to the Circuit Court regarding the citation. The case was filed in September and is still ongoing.

These citations were all issued back in June, and there is some doubt as to whether the ordinance is still being actively enforced.

“I wear clothing with mean political pictures and bad words,” Punta Gorda resident Jeff Ogus said. “Nothing happens. I haven’t been bothered by anyone.”

Ogus believes it’s his First Amendment right to wear clothing with inappropriate language on it, and he says he won’t stop unless he is forced to or fined. He’s lived in the city since Oct. 2021 and has never been confronted about the ordinance.

“Unless it is enforced somehow and people start paying the price for thumbing their nose at the law, then it's worthless,” Jenkins said. “You need to put teeth into these laws.”