PUNTA GORDA — A new sign code has been approved in Punta Gorda that restricts indecent or obscene language on residential signs and flags — and even a person’s clothing.
“We have listened to the public for a long, long time complain to us about some of the things going on (with indecent language on signs) in the community,” said City Council Member Nancy Prafke at Wednesday’s meeting. “People need to be sensible about their use (of these things).”
The city began reworking its sign code in January 2020 due to an abundance of Realtor signs in public areas.
During the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, more issues came to light with residential flags and signs, the amount of them, and even the language some featured that could be deemed as offensive.
“There are just things lately where people have pushed the envelope to the point where it’s crazy,” Prafke said. “In this particular case, I’m not sure that some of the things we have seen will ever be acceptable.”
The City Council unanimously approved the new sign code Wednesday, limiting residents to a total of four displays — two flags and two yard signs, or four flags and no yard signs, etc. — per property, regardless of the content.
With the new code, however, the city plans to restrict offensive language, defining it as “fighting words,” “indecent speech” or “obscene,” and including if those words — found to be in violation — are printed on a person’s apparel in a public place.
Residents like Michael Hirsh think the city’s new restrictions go too far.
“As much as any other parent or grandparent,” Hirsh told The Daily Sun, “I don’t like seeing obscenities on a T-shirt or sign in a public place, but as a long-time defender of the first amendment, you cannot legislate against it.”
“You can’t arrest somebody because their sign or T-shirt says something that you don’t like and it offends you,” he continued. “You just can’t do it in this country. That’s what the first amendment stands for.”
What are ‘fighting words?’
In the new code, the city defines this as words or graphics which “by their very utterance” have a direct tendency to incite immediate breach of the peace by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.
Fighting words include, but are not limited to, defamatory remarks made to private citizens; and epithets (or labels) based on the person’s race, color, religion, disability, national origin, ethnicity or sex.
What is ‘indecent speech?’
In the new code, the city defines this as language or graphics that depict or describe sexual or excretory activities or organs in a manner that is offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.
What is ‘obscene’ language?
In the new code, the city defines this as language or graphics that depict or describe sex or sexual organs in a manner appealing to, or intended to appeal to, the average viewer or reader’s visceral sexual (prurient) interests, and taken as a whole, lacks any justification from a political, literary, artistic or scientific value.
What is a sign?
In the new code, a “sign” is defined as any device, structure, item, thing, object, fixture, painting, printed material, apparel and accoutrements, or visual image using words, graphics, symbols, numbers, or letters designed or used for the purpose of communicating a message or attracting attention.
What happens next?
The new sign code took effect upon the City Council’s approval Wednesday.
Punta Gorda Zoning Official Lisa Hannon told the City Council the city plans on educating the public first.
“We’re not going to go out and be ‘the sign police,’” Hannon said. “We’re going to educate the public but we are going to let some of this be complaint-driven (as well).”
When it comes to complaints of indecency and fighting words, Hannon said they will ask for assistance from the Punta Gorda Police Department, if needed.
“We won’t be approaching or antagonizing anybody,” she said, “(if) someone is being unruly.”
Hannon went on to say that citations could start with a warning, followed by a $100 fine for the first offense and a $200 fine for the second.