Friday, March 06, 2009

Bait Shop Cited For First Amendment Banner

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and its Pinellas County chapter filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 24 against Clearwater on behalf of a Clearwater business, The Complete Angler. “The ACLU of Florida seeks to prevent the city from further proceeding against (owners Heriberto, “Herb,” and Lorraine Quintero) for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech and political protest,” read an ACLU press release regarding the lawsuit. The Quinteros opened the bait shop at 705 N. Fort Harrison Ave. on Feb. 1, 2008, said Herb Quintero, and shortly afterwards commissioned an artist to paint a mural of local game fish on one of the shop’s outdoor walls. The shop began getting notices of code violations in March 2008, claiming that the mural was in fact an additional sign, or advertising, although there are no words or a logo on the image. “We made numerous attempts to talk to the city, but they insisted that the mural, because it’s a depiction of fish, would constitute as additional signage because we are a tackle store,” Quintero said. “Our argument has always been that it was never made or painted to convey any information to the public. There is no logo or text. It just depicts local game fish in the area. It’s artwork and is covered under the First Amendment. It’s freedom of expression.” The Quinteros paid $690 in fines to the city and were ordered to cover up the mural. “Sometimes small cases carry very, very fundamental issues, and even though this is about The Complete Angler and Herb and Lori Quintero, it really is about the First Amendment and political protest and freedom of expression,” said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the ACLU of Florida. In January 2009, the shop owners hung a tarp and a banner with the First Amendment of the Constitution over the mural to comply with the city yet protest at the same time. Now the shop has been fined for posting the First Amendment banner. “They sent me a notice of violation that said I put up an illegal sign without the proper permits or anything and it’s additional signage, so we can’t have it,” Quintero said. “Now, because it’s the second violation on the same piece of property, it’s subject to a $500-a-day fine.” The banner was supposed to come down Feb. 27, but Quintero said he will not take it down.“It’s ironic that the very thing I’m using to protect my freedom of speech is now being challenged,” Quintero said. “I can’t in good conscience take that banner down. It goes against everything I believe in and is the whole reason for this fight ... It will stay until a judge tells me differently.” The ACLU lawsuit requests a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to disallow the city from issuing additional fines about until a trial can be held about the mural and the First Amendment banner. “It’s a pretty basic First Amendment lawsuit in terms of free speech, and quite frankly, it could be the first time someone has ever been banned by a government entity for displaying the First Amendment, which is ironic beyond imagination,” said Brandon Hensler, spokesman for the ACLU. “... It is such an egregious violation of the First Amendment that appears to be targeting this particular business when there are clearly other examples around town where people have not been targeted.” Hensler said not only is there no text or a logo on the mural or the banner, but if it were a true advertisement, it would imply that the shop sells fish, but it only sells bait and tackle. A hearing was scheduled on March 4 at the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa. There has been much public support for the Quinteros, and a Web site has been set up for them at Quintero said he is grateful for the support as well as to the ACLU for its lawsuit, since the Quinteros could not afford such a suit on their own. “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,” wrote Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida in a press release. “Unfortunately, public officials disregard constitutional freedoms all the time, but punishing citizens for displaying the Constitution may be a first.” The city of Clearwater has declined comment on the lawsuit at present, issuing the following statement: “We currently are in the process of the case and will determine the appropriate response.”