Don’t fret, we’re here!
The right to free speech is undeniably one of the most fundamental rights we have as Americans. It is the breath that sustains our democracy.
When that right is threatened by government players, we at the ACLU — as the premier defender of free speech in America — take it personally. And so did Wayne E. Weatherbee, owner of Bee’s Auto in downtown Clermont, Fla.
In October 2009, Weatherbee erected 12 signs on his business property in political protest against the City of Clermont, which he claims selectively enforced its laws against him and his business, and has falsely arrested him. One of the signs pleads:
“ACLU WHERE ARE YOU”
Well, here we are. On Tuesday, February 2, the City began imposing a $75/day fine on Bee’s Auto until the signs are removed or Weatherbee obtains a permit. This series of actions crossed the line and unacceptably infringed on Weatherbee’s right to free expression, so yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a federal lawsuit (PDF) against the City of Clermont on behalf of the local businessman, charging that city officials have unconstitutionally targeted Weatherbee, attempting to suppress his free speech. The lawsuit also charges that the city’s signage code is unconstitutional and should be overturned.
So what’s really at stake here? Aren’t these signs just a bunch of eyesores in historic downtown Clermont?
Political speech doesn’t have to be pretty to be protected. And when a city regulates political speech based on its content, it is a violation of the First Amendment. Clermont’s code, for instance, would allow, without a permit, a sign that urges viewers to ‘Vote for Crist for Senate,’ but would require a permit for one that reads ‘Impeach Gov. Crist.’ That’s viewpoint discrimination, and it’s unconstitutional.
(Notably, holiday decorations are exempt from Clermont’s permitting process and restrictions on size or number. That means that in Clermont, there would be greater protection of a warren of giant inflatable Easter Bunnies than of Weatherbee’s political speech. Not that there’s anything wrong with giant inflatable Easter bunnies, but...)
This isn’t the first time the city has violated the First Amendment. In 2007, the ACLU sent a letter to the city on behalf of a resident who was cited under the code for posting a “Vote for Ron Paul” sign in his yard. The city wanted to charge residents a permit fee for posting political signs; although they backed down in 2007, they have failed to embrace the principle that political speech is protected speech.
Derek B. Brett, ACLU cooperating attorney in Orlando and Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Central Florida, is leading the ACLU’s efforts in the lawsuit. Brett says: “The city’s actions are abusive. Since at least 2007, the City of Clermont has been on notice that the code violates the First Amendment’s protection of political speech.”
So here we are again. This time, we are aiming not only to prevent the city from further levying fines or collecting past fines placed on Weatherbee and Bee’s Auto, but also to strike down the Clermont’s unconstitutional signage ordinance.
Media cameras and reporters descended upon this small central Florida town this week to see the Clermont Sign War play out, and residents poured out to support the ACLU’s efforts, saying “Thank God for the ACLU” and even taking up a collection of donations for the ACLU’s work.
So, we march on with their support and your help, battling bad government policies one small town at a time.