Homeowners’ lawsuit: County’s beach-sign ban flouts First Amendment
SANTA ROSA BEACH, FL; July 18, 2016: The owners of a beachfront home sued Walton County today for banning signs on private beach property — including the signs against trespassing that the homeowners have installed on their privately owned beach property to safeguard their privacy, personal safety, and property rights.
J. David Breemer
Christina M. Martin
The county’s new blanket ban on signs on private beach property violates landowners’ First Amendment free-speech rights, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court by Edward and DeLanie Goodwin, a retired couple who have owned their beachfront home in Santa Rosa Beach since 1978.
The Goodwins are represented, free of charge, by Pacific Legal Foundation, the leading legal watchdog organization that litigates nationwide for property rights and individual rights. Donor-supported PLF has its national headquarters in Sacramento and its Florida office in Palm Beach Gardens.
At issue is an ordinance adopted on June 14, 2016, codified as Section 22-55 of the Walton County Code of Ordinances, which prohibits “obstruction(s)” on private beach property, including the placement of signs — on pain of a $500 fine per violation.
Currently, the Goodwins maintain two “Private Property” signs on their private beach property. Both are 12″ by 18″, and each is attached to a thin white PVC post in the sand. The Goodwins also have a third small sign that says, “If the County Wants My Private Beach for Public Use, It Must Pay Me For It — U.S. Constitution.”
Stopping property owners from speaking to the public
The Goodwins need to state publicly and prominently that their property is private, because under state and local trespassing law and policies, the county will not protect private beaches from trespassers unless the owners clearly mark out their beach property lines.
“The Goodwins have a First Amendment right to speak — and to use signs as a means of speech, a way to convey the message that their beach is not public, and that they value and insist on their property rights,” said PLF Principal Attorney J. David Breemer. “The county is robbing them of that fundamental right of free speech. Denying them the use of signs denies them the ability to let the public and the county itself know that their land is private and trespassing will not be allowed.”
“The county’s ban on all signs on our property endangers both our freedom of speech and our private property rights,” said Edward Goodwin. “That’s why it is necessary for us to go to court.”
Issues of personal privacy, personal security, and the environmental integrity of their property are also at stake. The publicly owned portion of the beach — from the mean high water level to the waters of the Gulf — is subject to heavy pedestrian use and even motorized traffic at certain times. Occasionally, members of the public leave the public beach and go up onto the Goodwins’ beach property without permission. Some have set up beach tents on the Goodwins’ land, allowed pets to defecate there, and refused to pick up their refuse.
At times, strangers have even entered the Goodwins’ home. Moreover, local surfers have claimed a right to use the Goodwins’ beach, and when Mr. Goodwin took pictures of one of them trespassing in 2015, he was threatened.
Moreover, the county itself sometimes trespasses, by driving trash trucks or other large vehicles across the Goodwins’ beach property.
Property rights come with free speech rights, too
“The Goodwins regularly use their beach for personal and family recreational activities, and they naturally want to feel safe and secure in their privacy,” said PLF attorney Christina Miller. “Also, they want to protect the fragile vegetation along the edge of their beach property, because it secures and stabilizes the upland dunes. For all these reasons — and to forestall any attempt to establish some kind of public easement over their dry beach land — they have erected signs to make it clear who owns the property, and that trespassing is not permitted. Conveying that message is the responsible thing to do. And the Goodwins’ right to convey that message is protected by the Constitution. The county’s sign ban would take away that right, so it has to be struck down.”
“All we want is to protect the traditional American right to engage in free speech on our own private property,” said Mr. Goodwin. “For decades, we have enjoyed and nurtured the sandy beach property we own and on which we pay taxes. It gives us privacy and freedom — including the freedom to speak by putting up small signs. We are trying to protect that.
“This suit is about our freedom and privacy,” he continued. “It is about the right to use our private beach not only for enjoying family gatherings but also for exercising our constitutional freedom to express ourselves. That includes the freedom to transmit the message to the public that our property is private and that we deserve protection from trespassers as much as any other homeowner.”
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, the lawsuit is titled, Goodwin v. Walton County. PLF is associated in this litigation with local counsel William J. Dunaway of the Clark Partington law firm in Pensacola. The lawsuit seeks a court judgment that the sign-ban ordinance is invalid because it violates the First Amendment, and an injunction against the law’s enforcement. For more information, including thecomplaint, visit: www.pacificlegal.org.
About Pacific Legal Foundation
Donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation is the leading watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights, and individual rights, in courts nationwide. PLF’s Florida office is in Palm Beach Gardens. PLF represents all clients free of charge.