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Judge backs St. Petersburg in limiting size of protest signs

LARGO — St. Petersburg city officials have the right to limit the size of signs used in protests, a Pinellas judge has ruled in connection with five arrests the 2007 Pride Festival.

The protesters were found guilty in June of violating a city ordinance that limits the size of signs that can be carried at special events like parades. The men carried large signs with religious and anti-gay sayings during the 2007 parade, then refused to follow police officers' requests that they remove the signs.

Their lawyer filed a motion asking Judge Henry Andringa to dismiss the case because the sign ordinance violated the First Amendment, which would have wiped out the guilty verdict.

Andringa issued an order Wednesday denying that request. His two-page order does not list any reasons for his decision.

The five protesters — religious men from Georgia who travel around the south protesting at gay pride events — are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 25. Each will face a $63 fine.

Lawyer David Gibbs, whose firm represented the men, said they will appeal.

"I think it's a violation of free speech," said Gibbs, whose firm takes on Christian causes and is best known for representing the parents of Terri Schiavo.

City Attorney Kimberly Proano had argued that the ordinance was constitutional because it didn't restrict the content of the signs.

The ordinance says protesters are allowed to wield signs that say whatever they want, as long as the signs are not wider than their torso. City lawyers say this is designed to prevent people from getting hit by large signs and to keep foot traffic flowing.

"Our strongest argument was the fact that this wasn't unconstitutional because it didn't deal with the content of the signs," Proano said. "We were trying to appease the attendees there, the protestors and the pride event promoters."

Judge backs St. Petersburg in limiting size of protest signs 08/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2008 4:21pm]
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