Photo: Daniel Sutphin, Sun

“A new Punta Gorda law is in the works that could restrict indecent or obscene language on residential signs and flags — and even a person’s clothes if worn in public places.

‘We get complaints about people putting up — whether it’s a flag or sign or (wearing) apparel, whatever — that has the F word on it,’ said City Council Member Nancy Prafke…

The city began reworking its current 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.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council approved the first of two readings of the city’s new ‘Sign Standards’ code that would try to control some of these issues…

With the new code, however, the city plans to restrict offensive language, defining it as ‘fighting words,’ ‘indecent speech’ or ‘obscene.’

The City Council also amended the new code to include apparel should a shirt, hat, or other piece of clothing display language in a public place that could be found to be in violation of those definitions.

‘So, when you’re driving down the street and someone has a sign (with offensive language) in their yard,” said City Manager Greg Murray, “that can be enforceable but if it’s inside a place like Fishermen’s Village (it’s not because) you’re on private property.’

Murray went on to say that if a person was wearing an ‘offensive’ shirt in a public place like the city’s Harborwalk along Charlotte Harbor, they would be in violation of the new code.

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, or visual image using words, graphics, symbols, numbers, or letters designed or used for the purpose of communicating a message or attracting attention.

City Attorney David Levin told the City Council that this definition could ‘arguably include something being worn.’

Mayor Lynne Matthews thought a more clear definition was needed.

‘We should include something specific about apparel of any kind,’ Matthews said. ‘It needs to be added specifically because anything you leave to subjective opinion goes by the wayside.’

What’s next?

The amended ‘Sign Standards’ ordinance still has to come back before the City Council at a future meeting before anything becomes official.

As far as how the new code will be enforced, Assistant City Manager told The Daily Sun that it is currently ‘under staff review.'”

— Daniel Sutphin, Sun

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