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Government Tries to Sidestep Accountability for Violating Citizens’ First Amendment Right to Political Expression Critical of Biden and Trump

LAKELAND, Fla. — The Rutherford Institute is challenging attempts by the government to sidestep accountability and avoid having to make financial restitution for violating the citizenry’s First Amendment right to political expression, including the right to criticize Presidents Biden and Trump.

Although a Florida state circuit court found that government officials in the City of Punta Gorda acted unconstitutionally when it fined two protesters a total of $3000 for displaying political messages stating “F@#k Biden,” “F@#k Trump,” and “F@#k Policing 4 Profit” in violation of the city’s sign ordinance, the court refused to make the government pay for any of the expenses required to challenge the City’s actions in court. On appeal in Massey v. City of Punta Gorda, Fla. and Sheets v. City of Punta Gorda, Fla., Florida’s Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s refusal without providing any written opinion. Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that shielding the government from accountability will both encourage government entities to violate the constitutional rights of its citizens and discourage citizens from challenging such violations.

“The right of political free speech is the basis of all liberty. No matter what their political persuasion might be, every American has a First Amendment right to protest government programs or policies with which they might disagree,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “As the Supreme Court recognized, laws of this sort empower the government to suppress unpopular ideas or information and manipulate the public debate through coercion, which is exactly the kind of tyranny the First Amendment was intended to prohibit.”

In June 2021, the City of Punta Gorda, Fla. amended its ordinances to prohibit any sign containing “indecent speech,” which was defined 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.” Each violation carried up to a $5,000 fine. During the first month of the new ordinance being enacted, Andrew Sheets was cited four times by police for violating the ordinance due to displaying the words “F@#k Policing 4 Profit,” “F@#k Trump,” and “F@#k Biden.” Likewise, Richard Massey was cited for violating the ordinance by displaying a sign which said “F@#k Punta Gorda, trying to illegally kill free speech.” The City’s Code Enforcement Board penalized them with $3,000 in fines.

Rutherford Institute attorneys subsequently secured a First Amendment victory before the Charlotte County Circuit Court, which ruled against the City, noting that the ordinance was “designed to cause the preemptive self-silencing of speakers whose messages are entitled to constitutional protection.” However, despite finding the ordinance to be unconstitutional, the Circuit Court refused to make the City of Punta Gorda reimburse the more than $2,000 in legal costs required to defend the protesters’ First Amendment rights. In an appeal to Florida’s Sixth District Court of Appeal, The Rutherford Institute warned that making protesters pay substantial court costs, especially when the costs end up being more than the fine itself, could create a significant chilling effect, causing others to silence themselves or just pay the unconstitutional fines for exercising their freedom of speech against the government. Institute attorneys have asked the appellate court to rehear the case.

Affiliate attorney Phares Heindl assisted The Rutherford Institute with the appeals in Massey v. City of Punta Gorda and Sheets v. City of Punta Gorda. The briefs and motions are available at

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

This press release is also available at


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