Obama sign a violation of code or protected speech? listen03/03/09 Seán Kinane
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Update, March 11: Heine has put his sign up for sale on eBay. In an email message, Heine says "If the KKK Christians want this sign down so badly, let them put their money where their mouth is, and buy it. Buy it for Jesus."
A sign outside a Pinellas Park business reads “One Nation Under Obama.” Is it a violation of a sign ordinance or is it speech protected by the First Amendment?
Pinellas County code enforcement calls it a violation of the county’s free-standing sign ordinance, but the man who erected the sign, Randy Heine told the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners Tuesday morning that he will fight for his constitutional rights.
“This sign is a political speech sign and I believe it’s protected under the Constitution of the United States. And I don’t think it’s proper for a government to try and take away my constitutional rights for expressing my personal opinion on my own land that I paid for.”
The sign is located at the business Heine owns called Rockin Cards and Gifts. During Tuesday’s meeting, he asked County Commissioners to call off the county’s code enforcement team from enforcing the ordinance against his embattled sign.
Pinellas County administrator Robert LaSala told the board that the sign’s “message is not the issue.” “That request isn’t in keeping with your code. It is a free standing sign that doesn’t belong within this property classification. And that’s the problem.”
Heine told the board that his attorney, Luke Lirot, was ready to take this issue to federal court.
“The ACLU and my attorney, Luke Lirot, takes a different position on this. And if you remember the past, the last time we went to court it cost the county about $150,000. Are you ready to spend a quarter of a million dollars to take this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court?”
Commissioner Neil Brickfield says he is concerned about the county’s liability.
“I just don’t want to be walking our county – over a code enforcement issue – into a First Amendment battle which is going to cost us thousands and thousands of dollars. People have a right to put up political statements.”
Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett says that Heine has alternatives to the large free-standing sign.
“This individual could put that message on his commercial sign.”
Heine says his attorney thinks that freedom of speech trumps a local code ordinance. He told the Commission he plans to keep the sign up for only 90 days. Heine has photographs of people vandalizing his sign, but they have not been caught.
“Well, just before the election, I put up a sign that said “One Nation under Obama” with spray paint on a 4x8 [foot sign]. And within days it was X-ed over and the word ‘god’ was painted over the name ‘Obama.’ Then right after the election when Obama won, I stuck that sign up again and they defaced it again.”
Heine has tangled with people who believe in religion before. The St. Petersburg Times reported that 14 people picketed his property last month. After the original acts of vandalism, Heine erected a larger free-standing sign, which led to the code citation from the county.
“I put up a bigger sign in honor of President Obama’s election. … Somebody paint-balled it.”
Also on Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission scheduled a meeting to vote on new emergency medical response standards on March 20. At that meeting, the Commission could approve new rules for emergency dispatchers to quickly decide how severe an emergency is when someone phones 911 so that an appropriate response can be sent.
The Commission also put off a decision on allowing St. Petersburg to dredge the exit channel of Coffee Pot Bayou because environmentalists have concerns about bird nesting habitat on an island less than a half-mile away. They scheduled a public hearing for March 17th.
Will Davis, the county’s director of environmental management, says the city does not require a public hearing to dredge the Coffee Pot Bayou exit channel.
“I do not think there’s any danger to, or there’s any impact to the nesting birds in this area.”
Pinellas County government plans to downsize because of revenue shortfalls and is holding a series of meetings to get feedback about programs and services that might be affected. The two remaining meetings will be on March 23 at Osceola High School in Seminole and March 26 at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. Both meetings will be from 5:30 until 8 p.m.