The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed an 18-page federal lawsuit against Clearwater after the city fined a tackle shop owner for displaying an innocuous mural on the side of his store. Designated as a sign by Clearwater code enforcement, the mural — which consists of a few kitsch paintings of fish — violates one of the city’s sign ordinances, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Herb Quintero, who owns The Complete Angler, was fined nearly $700 and ordered to paint over the mural.
The actions of Clearwater’s code enforcement officers imply a loose interpretation of the word “sign.” The spurious reading of this code easily enables fining business owners and obstructing artistic expression.
“This is frustrating, but I can’t just lay down. This is for every businessman that’s ever been railroaded and made to take signs down or made to change the way they do business, and it’s just not right,” Quintero said to ABC Action News.
The paintings themselves have no explicit advertisements or letters. Moreover, the shop itself does not sell fish. The Complete Angler only sells products to catch fish.
Even though the mural is a poor representation of both advertising and art, it should be respected, not fined — and certainly not covered up by decree of an arbitrary city ordinance.
In a brilliant act of defiance, Quintero covered up the paintings with a printed banner of the First Amendment. But the city fought back. Officials are now fining Quintero for the banner as well as the mural. He could soon be forced to pay up to $500 per day in fines.
“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,” Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU, said to
The city is right about one thing: the First Amendment is a sign.
It is a sign that each and every citizen is protected from stringent laws that override and abridge the freedom of speech. It is a sign that the principles of liberty in the First Amendment embody what it means to be American. It is a sign that allows people to peacefully assemble, exercise their freedom of religion and — in the case of the ACLU — petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is these same principles that have allowed countless individuals to express themselves through poetry, music, literature and, yes, even gaudy paintings on the side of small businesses.