Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sign of the Times

"Eddy may not realize it, but around Gulf Breeze what many citizens would like to see are signs that say things about their own insurance company you shouldn't print on a blog like this, much less in a family newspaper."
In a recent issue of the Gulf Breeze News, veteran reporter B.J. Davis got the scoop, but not the right photo, on how Gulf Breeze city government is leaning on local businessman Chris Green to silence his electronic protest sign. B.J.'s article appears in the just-superceded April 20 weekly issue under the title "Business Owner Says His Sign Reflects Right To Free Speech."

Chris Green is, if you'll pardon the expression, one of the few green-friendly developers in the Pensacola area and the only one we know who is afflicted with a keen sense of sardonic irony. He owns SeaGreen Center, a small, single story retail complex in Gulf Breeze 'Proper' that's home to a few retail shops and offices, plus one popular barbeque restaurant.

After nearly two years of frustrating negotiations with Allstate Insurance over SeaGreen's Hurricane Ivan claim, the developer's patience was exceeded when the insurer demanded access for yet another repeat inspection -- this, after a long string of other damage inspections conducted by various structural engineers and other experts hired by Allstate.

"They just kept sending these guys, and sending more guys, and sending more of them again," Green told us in a recent impromptu interview. "I don't remember how many it's been, now -- six or seven. Maybe more. I guess they'll just keep sending 'em until Allstate finally gets someone who will give them an answer they like."

Green refused the insurer's last inspection demand when it became apparent that Allstate was proposing to conduct tests Green considers invasive to the building and his tenants' rights. He also worried that some of the tests might cause further damage to the building.

The insurance company responded by denying his claim and closing the file. Then it canceled his insurance policy.

That's when Green re-programmed the flashing electric message board at the main entrance to SeaGreen Center. B.J. reports the developer put "a lot of thought" into his decision.
"I've thought about this because I knew there would be repercussions [including] the newness of this type of sign, and I knew it would be, to a degree, a controversial message,' said Green. 'I look at it like this, it's a company that deserted us.'"
The electronic message board now alternates a promotional message for the restaurant-tenant with one knocking Allstate Insurance. Every half minute or so, these two screens appear --


Within a few days, Gulf Breeze Community Services Director Craig S. Carmichael sent Green a letter telling him the sign violated city ordinances. As B.J. Davis describes it in the Gulf Breeze News --
"The letter states,"The City is writing this letter in reference to the Allstate ad you are currently displaying on your electronic reader board sign [...] The message does not pertain to any business located in the center and is classified as an off premises sign.'

"The letter excerpt refers to Gulf Breeze City Code of Ordinances Section 23-3 which states that 'Signs located off the premises of the business which the sign advertises or identifies' are prohibited. The letter continues by stating, 'The City respectfully requests that you immediately remove the message.'

Green told this blog that when he asked city officials what prompted them to write, they would say only that an "anonymous" complaint had been made. Asked if the complaint came from someone connected with Allstate, Green chuckled.

"The city won't say," he told us. "I think it's pretty obvious, but you'll have to reach your own conclusions."

As for the city's claim that Section 23-3 (1) prohibits "signs located off the premises of the business which the sign advertises or identifies," Green contends the section doesn't apply. The sign, he points out, is located on SeaGreen premises and it doesn't advertise Allstate's services.

Indeed, how could it? Allstate announced recently that it is pulling out of the Florida property insurance market altogether. It's not only not interested in advertising for more property insurance business in Florida, it's trying to get rid of the customers it has.

A more plausible motive for Gulf Breeze officials than the "off-site" location technicalities of 23-3(1) is subsection (3) of the same ordinance. That part outlaws --
"Signs that contain statements, words or pictures of an obscene, indecent, or immoral character, such as will offend public morals or decency."
As you may discern, this part of the ordinance suffers from terminal vagueness, among other constitutional infirmities. Still, the 'public morals and decency' clause comes pretty close to what Gulf Breeze city manager Edwin 'Buz' Eddy probably had in mind when he told reporter Davis, "The city Code is a function of what citizens want signs to say."

That remark is very silly on several levels. Eddy may not realize it, but around Gulf Breeze what many citizens would like to see are signs that say things about their own insurance company you shouldn't print on a blog like this, much less in a family newspaper.

That point to one side, the city manager's remark displays a woeful misunderstanding of the constitutional contraints on municipal government. Founding Fathers like James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, Gouverneur Morris, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney insisted on elevating the guarantee of freedom of speech to a constitutional dimension precisely so that the freedom of speech guarantee would not be restricted to the narrow boundaries of "what citizens want" to read or hear at any given moment in time.

The whole idea of preserving freedom of speech by constitutional guarantee is to make speech and thought safe from the passions of a temporary majority. That is to say, the First Amendment protects most especially unpopular speech. Popular speech needs no constitutional protection.

B.J. Davis, who usually gets it exactly right, in the same Gulf Breeze News article attributes comments as sophistic as Eddy's to city attorney Matt Danheisser. According to B.J., Dannheisser said:
"A municipality has the right (to limit sign content) if it thinks it's doing so in the best interest of public health, safety and welfare. The city's ordinances are not regulating the free speech aspect. The ordinance limits the content of electronic signs or any other signs." [emphasis added]
It's hard to believe Dannheiser would utter such nonsense. If he did, it must have been in a moment of innocent confusion. Government imposition of "limits" on "the content" of signs inherently 'regulates' "the free speech aspect." That's why municipal regulations "to limit sign content" are so frequently struck down by the courts.

Although this area of constitutional law is heavily nuanced, the Supreme Court has made this much clear in a long line of cases centered around Metromedia, Inc. vs. San Diego, 453 U.S. 490 (1981). Reasonable regulation of the size, location, and esthetics of business signs is constitutionally permissible. But the regulation must be content-neutral. Furthermore, a city's regulations cannot constitutionally place a higher 'value' on commercial speech that promotes an on-site business than it does on speech promoting off-site commerce; or, for that matter, on non-commercial ideas and opinions that have no particular locus at all.

Apparently addressing the Gulf Breeze News reporter, city manager Eddy at one point asks rhetorically, "If you get wronged in business and start putting it on the signs, where does it end?"

Someone -- perhaps someone like Mr. Dannheisser -- should tell the city manager the correct answer is, "It doesn't end."

That's the beauty of the Bill of Rights. It protects the right of individuals to freedom of expression even if that expression maddens an arrogant insurance company or frightens nervous city bureaucrats.

Dept. of Amplification

If you don't have an electronic sign of your own, but need to express yourself about Allstate every few days, try posting messages on AllstateInsuranceSucks.com


Milton Mike said...

There was a house no side of Garcon Point bridge that had a HUGE attack on insurance cos. It finally came down with the house. Anybody know if he got paid?

Tjlj said...

FYI, the owner of the Seagreen Center had taken down the message about Allstate when the paper went out for the picture to go in BJ's article. He couldn't make it re-appear! They got the only picture available to them. The message went back up on the sign after the article was written.