Business Owner's Mural and First Amendment Display Targeted by City of Clearwater

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
February 24, 2009 12:00 am

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Latino Store Owners’ Free Speech Rights Trampled By City

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EDITORS’ NOTE: Photos available

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and its Pinellas County Chapter filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of local business owners Heriberto and Lorraine Quintero, whose First Amendment rights have repeatedly been trampled on by the City of Clearwater. The ACLU of Florida seeks to prevent the city from further proceeding against the Quinteros for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech and political protest.

The City of Clearwater first issued notices of code violations to the bait shop owners in March of 2008, claiming that a mural of game fish and marine life that the Quinteros commissioned a local artist to paint on the exterior wall of their bait shop is not “art work,” which is exempt from permitting under the City’s code. The city claims that the mural is advertising “signage” for the business, although no text appears on the artwork.

“The City of Clearwater cannot be the sole arbiter of what is and what is not art. Nor can the city favor one form of speech over another. To do so is evidence of disregard for the First Amendment rights of city residents,” said Maria Kayanan, ACLU of Florida Associate Legal Director.

After paying $690.00 in fines to the city in January of 2009, the Quinteros hung a banner over the mural as an act of political protest,. The banner proudly displays the text of the First Amendment above the statement: “THE SUPREME COURT REQUIRES THE GOVERNMENT TO PROVIDE SUBSTANTIAL JUSTIFICATION FOR THE INTERFERENCE WITH THE RIGHT OF FREE SPEECH WHERE IT ATTEMPTS TO REGULATE THE CONTENT OF THE SPEECH.”

The city again threatened the Quinteros ordering them to remove both the banner and the mural by Feb. 27, 2009, further violating their First Amendment rights.

“The city cannot tell the Quinteros that their First Amendment banner is unprotected speech while it simultaneously allows displays – without a permit – of any and all ‘holiday decorations,'” added Kayanan. “Regulating speech based on content is an egregious violation of the constitution and reflects poorly on the City. The Quinteros are hard-working citizens who have taken a righteous stand against government overreaching. In these difficult economic times, the City should be supporting local entrepreneurs, not persecuting them for freedom of expression and political protest.”

The Quinteros own and operate The Complete Angler, a bait and tackle shop on Harrison Ave. in Clearwater. After purchasing and renovating the store in early 2007, the Quinteros commissioned local artist Matt Evanson to paint a mural on the side of their bait and tackle shop illustrating the natural habitat and waterways around the store. The mural includes illustrations of a variety of local fish and when completed will include marine vegetation and coral. The mural remains incomplete due to the city’s actions.

“Only in Florida could a business owner be targeted and fined for displaying artwork; and then in protest of the fine, display the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – and then be ticketed for that,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Unfortunately, public officials disregard constitutional freedoms all the time, but punishing citizens for displaying the Constitution may be a first.”

Photos of the mural and free speech banner can be viewed at:

ACLU attorneys in The Complete Angler v. The City of Clearwater are Maria Kayanan, ACLU of Florida Associate Legal Director; James K. Green, Esq., cooperating counsel; and Bruce Howie, Esq., cooperating counsel. The lawsuit was filed today in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division.

Read the complaint filed in federal court today in PDF format:

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