LARGO — A judge struck down a portion of St. Petersburg's sign ordinance Thursday, saying the law is unconstitutional in how it regulates electronic scrolling messages.
The sign ordinance says that for public safety reasons, a message must stay on an electronic sign for at least 60 seconds. Yet it allows some venues, such as large arenas or theaters, to change messages as frequently as every 10 seconds. The most prominent example is the electronic billboard next to Tropicana Field, visible from the nearby interstate.
Pinellas County Judge Patrick Caddell said the city provided no data to explain the public safety rationale of the law, or justification for its "double standard." He agreed with St. Petersburg city attorneys' contention that judges should stay out of legislative matters whenever possible, but also said it was clear the sign ordinance violated the "equal protection" clause of the U.S. Constitution.
That provision says states must not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" and is part of the 14th Amendment.
"The fact that you have a dual standard is, I believe, a fundamental equal protection issue that has to be addressed by the courts," Caddell said. "And there's no rationale whatsoever for having a restriction apply to a select, small group versus the rest of the world."
Caddell added, "The bottom line is, one standard for all. Unless there's an overriding public purpose in having that dual standard. That's a high hill to climb."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, reached Thursday afternoon, said he needed to hear from the city's legal team before giving any response.
The case started when Dr. David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon, got a $143 citation for the scrolling message on the sign in front of his office at 401 Southwest Blvd. N. The sign displayed various antitax messages, and also an excerpt from the Florida Constitution: "No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech."
He hired attorney George Rahdert, who also represents the Tampa Bay Times on First Amendment issues, and filed a motion to dismiss the case.
After the ruling, McKalip asked if he could speak and thanked Caddell "for recognizing the natural-born rights I have of free speech."
Caddell, known around the court system for his quick and sometimes acerbic wit, replied: "It's what I do for a living. Don't think you're anything special."
McKalip said after the hearing that he appreciated the judge's ruling, and he hoped it sent a strong message to the city not to infringe on free speech rights.