PUNTA GORDA — Two sign code protesters in Punta Gorda lost their fight against the city’s Code Enforcement Board regarding recent citations they received for “indecent” signs.
Since the new sign code was approved by the City Council June 2, Charlotte County “CopWatch” YouTuber Andrew Sheets, along with YouTube personality Richard Massey, have been displaying signs, flags and shirts in public places that the city considers “indecent” based on the code.
That definition includes 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.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, the city argued that those displays using the F-word violated the city’s sign code.
A majority of the Code Enforcement Board agreed.
Sheets, who was contesting four citations during the meeting, will have to pay the city $2,500 in fines, while Massey, who was contesting only one, will have to pay $500.
Attorney Phares Heindl, representing both men, argued that there are many meanings of the F-word, not specifically in reference to sexual organs or actions such as that defined by the ordinance.
“(The use of language) is very important and that’s why these men are out holding these signs because they have issues with the constitutionality of this ordinance,” Heindl said. “There are plenty of commonly used (phrases) with ‘F---’ that don’t have any sexual connotation like ‘F- — off,’ ‘What the f---, ‘F---ing idiot.’
“You don’t think when using those words people are trying to get out a description of sex.”
Board member Edward Weiner said that to most people in the Punta Gorda community, the F-word is offensive.
“The word offensive in the last line (of the ordinance definition) is where everybody is heading so ‘What the f---’ may be offensive to most of the people in this room,” Weiner said. “It may not be offensive to the two bozos sitting here.”
Sheets and Massey both said the city’s sign code violates their freedom of speech.
“The city is trying to censor my protest speech by banning words and phrases it considers indecent but these words express the depth of my anger and frustration with the government, and I believe it is my duty as a citizen to confront this attempt to take away our freedom of speech,” Sheets said.
“Yes, I use strong words,” he continued, “but that is because of how bad the corruption is and how strongly I oppose the city’s attempt to deprive us of our constitutional rights.”
“It’s our right to express ourselves through speech of any type with minor limitations,” Massey said. “Free speech does not have a limitation, whether it’s on paper or on speech. It’s all covered by the First Amendment.”
The city’s sign code restricts offensive language, defining it as “fighting words,” “indecent speech” or “obscene,” and including if those words — found to be in violation — are printed on signs, flags and even a person’s apparel in a public place and can be viewed by a person under the age of 17.
Both Sheets and Massey are expected to pay the fines, as well as case costs of $7.41 per citation, within 10 days of Wednesday’s meeting.
Sheets asked the board what would happen if he didn’t pay the fines, but his attorney advised him to withdraw that question.