City hall

Punta Gorda City Hall sign.

PUNTA GORDA — Can Punta Gorda staff restrict someone from recording at City Hall?

The city thinks so.

Self-proclaimed government watchdog Andrew Sheets was served with a trespass warning by city staff Dec. 20.

He said he was trying to make a records request for an ordinance that restricts the recording of public officials in public places.

“Punta Gorda government illegally trespassed me for making a records request for their illegal ordinance that we cannot record public officials in a public place while I had my press pass on and my body camera on,” wrote Sheets in an email to the Sun.

During the interaction, city staff members refused consent to be recorded by Sheets and asked him to turn off his body camera.

There are also signs posted on the walls in the offices at city hall stating recording is restricted.

“He was asked to stop because he was filming in an employee’s personal work space,” Punta Gorda Communications Manager Melissa Reichert said.

“The city has enforced Ordinance 1872-17 as provided therein since its adoption in May 2017,” wrote

Reichert in an email to the Sun. ”Unless and until a court of competent jurisdiction determines otherwise, the city staff believes the ordinance is valid.”

The City Council adopted the ordinance in May 2017. In the ordinance, it is stated that city staff may “lawfully designate the degree of public access within city-owned, control and leased property, according to the purpose and use of areas within such property.”

As part of the ordinance, it is noted that city staff seeks to maintain a safe and orderly environment, as well as to discourage and prevent behavior that interferes with the designated use of that property.

The ordinance also recognizes that the public has certain constitutionally protected rights within public forms and limited designated forums, such rights maybe subject to reasonable regulation with non-public forums.

After the interaction at City Hall, Sheets went to the Punta Gorda Police Department and requested to speak with Police Chief Pam Davis, according to a police department reporting officer narrative filed by Lt. Justin Davoult.

During that time, city staff had called and reported the interaction with Sheets and requested a trespass warning be issued.

When Sheets asked if he could appeal the trespass warning, Davoult told him to get a lawyer, according to Sheets.

“This is a city ordinance violation,” Davis said. “PGPD was enforcing the ordinance.”

The legality of the city’s ordinance has been questioned in the past. In an April 27, 2017 felony warrant request from the State Attorney’s Office, it is stated that the SAO was asked to consider whether videotaping in a city building is a violation of Florida Statute and deemed that it was not a violation.

The statute prohibits the secret use of recording devices, not those that are in plain sight, which Sheets camera was.

In the disposition notice, Assistant State Attorney Richard T. Simpson wrote: “A citizen’s right to film government officials, in the discharge of their duties in a public place is a basic, vital and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment. Openly recording falls plainly outside the type of clandestine recording target by F.S. 934.03. The restrictions intended by the statute apply to the secret use of devices.”

Sheets also questions the trespass warning, which unless it is appealed, would ban him from the Punta Gorda City Hall for a year.

“There is a seven-year-old Florida Statute that you have to have redress and be able to access the (public) buildings in case you need to pay taxes or go to a public meeting like the pickleball debate,” Sheets wrote.

In a report posted by Weiss, Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman Law Firm on its website, it was noted that the Florida 11th Circuit Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for city officials to issue trespass warnings.

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