Court hearing to protect St. Petersburg resident’s free speech rights Thursday morning at Pinellas Criminal Justice Center, 14250 49th Street North, 10 a.m.. Meeting with Press at 915 a.m. in front of Center.
The City of St. Petersburg has decided that some speech is more acceptable than others. In 2012, the St. Pete government banned “scrolling” text on electronic signs at small businesses, but is allowing them on the dangerous I-275 Curve at Tropicana field. The city has banned “spinning” images and text at small business electronic signs, but has allowed human sign spinners to dance and spin their large signs all over town. The city has banned a business or person to finish one thought or sentence on a sign, but allows the arts venue to do so. In other words, the city thinks some speech is more acceptable than others and some speakers are more fit to speak than others. On Thursday, Dr. McKalip, this blog’s founder and editor, will put the city to the test in court as he challenges their laws as unconstitutional. Dr. McKalip has filed a motion to dimiss the citation made against him and his sign on the grounds that the city is violating constitutionally protected free speech rights. The City’s response? It is okay to use their state-granted “police powers” to decide who speaks and how they speak as long as they have good intentions.
Video of Sign in Question displaying free speech clause of Florida Constitution. This is the message the city fined. (1/22: updated from prior low quality version).
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Dr. McKalip has an electronic messaging center on the southwest corner of 4th St. N and 62nd Ave N. as part of his business. The sign is used to promote business and offer political and social messages to the community. Dr. McKalip received a citation from the city last September for violating the law stating that no scrolling text is allowed and that no message can be shorter than 60 seconds. Dr. McKalip has filed a motion to dismiss the charges as unconstitutional. It turns out that even though dozens of signs are violating the ordinance, only one citation has ever been filed – it was against Dr. McKalip who has been vocally working to stop these ordinances for over two years. Dr. McKalip offered: “The politicians running our government are setting dangerous limits on speech that grow their ability to control free people in St. Petersburg. They must be stopped, or their arrogant behavior will get even worse”.
What message was on the sign that was being fined? It said this: “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press” ,directly from Article I, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution. The city banned the ability of a passing driver or pedestrian to read this entire message in one encounter with the sign. The way the laws are written, only three or four words could be viewed and would have to stay up for 60 seconds. The city then bans the next few words from being related to the prior few words.
The city offered a response to Dr. McKalip’s constitutional challenge which could only be described as “chilling”. The city claims that it can use its “police powers to advance its aesthetic interests and safety”. They then claim that it is right for the large Tropicana Field Electronic Messaging center to change every ten seconds on what they acknowledge is an “interstate highway right-of way where there is a high volume of vehicular traffic travelling at high speeds.” Here alone they show they are not interested in public safety in the least. In fact, many digital billboards are now allowed on I-275 with “dwell times” of 10 seconds. They then assert that allowing 10 second dwell times on the surface streets could be more dangerous than the same times on a high speed highway? There is no common sense here.
They then claim they have to use their “police powers” to protect the aesthetic value of the city. Yet they allow the billboards to scroll and change quickly on 275- visible to surrounding neighborhoods. They also allow the scrolling, flashing, scintillating messages on the American Stage Theater sign on busy downtown streets adjacent to Williams Park. They also allow endless directional signs for Rays games and street repairs as well as moving images on trolleys, busses and more. Finally, they allow each and every business in St. Petersburg to hire human “sign spinners” that are allegedly more aesthetically pleasing than moving messaging on electronic signs.
The truth is that the politicians on City Council, and the extremists who have pressured them to pass these ordinances, simply don’t like electronic message centers. They don’t think a business should have the right to most effectively promote their services – even if the economy is tight. They don’t think the consumer should have the right to learn about lower priced milk at one store at the same time they see a message that scrolls in offering cheaper bread too. Dr. McKalip observed: “The city sees no limits on their power to stifle freedom if they simply claim they have good intentions of serving public safety and their sense of “aesthetics”. However, the fact that they allow so many to violate these laws if they are the “right” people indicates they are seeking to build a society of the privileged where only those with political connections and power will have freedom”.
The City government is out of control and Dr. McKalip will stand up to stop their attempts to oppress freedom of its citizens on Thursday. An appeal is likely if the city convinces the Judge that the local court should also participate in suppressing free speech.