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Santa Rosa Beach no trespassing sign sparks Walton County free speech battle

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FortWaltonSign2A First Amendment fight has broken out on the sugar-white sands of Santa Rosa Beach in Walton County.

A retired couple, who own a 2,296-square-foot beachfront home, has filed a federal lawsuit, asserting that a new Walton County ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution because it prohibits the couple from posting no-trespassing signs on their privately owned property.

The couple, Edward and DeLanie Goodwin, are represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that advocates for private property and individual rights. The PLF does not charge its clients for the legal work.

“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 J. David Breemer, the lead attorney for the PLF. “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.”

The Goodwins have two 12-by-18-inch “private property” signs on their property as well as a third, smaller signs that says: “If the County Wants My Private Beach for Public Use, It Must Pay Me For It — U.S. Constitution.”

The Goodwins said they posted the private-property signs because the local sheriff, citing state law, said trespassing complaints would not be investigated unless the public is warned about private property.

The couple said they posted the signs because of incidents involving the public wandering onto their private land, which is adjacent to a public beach.

“Some have set up beach tents on the property, allowed pets to defecate on it, and refused to pick up their refuse. On occasion (typically, at least once a year), strangers have crossed the Goodwins’ dry beach without permission and entered the Goodwins’ home,” the complaint says.

Edward Goodwin said he was threatened by a surfer after he took a picture of the surfers on the private land.

The complaint also says county vehicles, including trash trucks, sometimes drive across the property.

In May 2014, a county code officer cited the couple for installing an illegal beach “obstruction,” the two private-property signs which are mounted on PVC pipe and linked by a plastic chain. The citation carried a $100 fine.

The Goodwins went to court and had the citation dismissed.

But throughout this time there were growing controversies between beachfront property owners in Walton County, like the Goodwins and members of the public, who were claiming access rights to the beaches.

It resulted in the Walton County Commission last month voting to amend its “Beach Activities Code,” resulting in the sign ban.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to place, construct or maintain an obstruction on the beach. Obstructions include, but are not limited to ropes, chains, signs or fences,” the county ordinance says.

In late June, the Goodwins were cited for violating the revised ordinance and now face a $500 fine per incident.

As a result of that, the PLF filed its constitutional challenge earlier this week in the U.S. District Court in Pensacola. The county has yet to file a legal response to the challenge.


Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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