CLEARWATER — A fight over a fish mural has landed in federal court.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city of Clearwater on behalf of a local bait and tackle shop that has been embroiled in a months-long standoff with the city government over a mural painted on the side of its building.
City officials say the painting, which depicts a half-dozen game fish such as grouper and snook, amounts to an unauthorized sign under Clearwater's laws. They have fined the business nearly $700 and have ordered it to paint over the mural or face steeper fines.
But the ACLU's federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday, accuses the city of trampling on the First Amendment rights of the Complete Angler, a fishing emporium on Fort Harrison Avenue just north of downtown Clearwater.
The store's owner, Herb Quintero, argues that the mural is art, not a sign. Last month, in response to the city's order to remove the painting, he instead covered it with a banner displaying the text of the First Amendment. The store recently was cited again.
"Only in Florida could a business owner be targeted and fined for displaying artwork, and then in protest of the fine, display the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — and then be ticketed for that," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
Clearwater officials had little response to the lawsuit, putting out a generic statement: "We currently are in the process of reviewing the case and will determine the appropriate response."
During the course of the controversy, code enforcers have said they're just following Clearwater's strict sign ordinance, which forbids murals on the outside walls of a business that depict a product being sold inside.
The 22-page ordinance, which forced many Clearwater businesses to downsize or lower their signs beginning in the 1980s, is credited with reducing clutter and improving the look of the city's main thoroughfares such as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
However, the Complete Angler is on a blighted stretch of road that has its share of dilapidated buildings and prostitutes. Clearwater's City Hall has gotten numerous phone calls and e-mails from residents who disagree with the city's stance.
Quintero says he's been informed that he could face $500-a-day fines starting next week. The ACLU is asking a federal judge to slap a restraining order on the city before those fines kick in.
The lawsuit alleges that the city is enforcing its rules arbitrarily, ignoring some murals while targeting others.
"There's no logo or lettering in the mural itself," said Becky Steele, the ACLU's regional director. "The regulations give the city too much discretion to decide, 'What is art?' This is a question that has perplexed philosophers for thousands of years."
Clearwater officials have made the opposite case.
Jeff Kronschnabl, the city's director of development and neighborhood services, argues that the city can't make any exceptions when enforcing its codes. What if an adult entertainment business put up a mural depicting its products? If the city cracked down on a racy mural and gave a fish mural a pass, then it would be trying to dictate the content of artwork, he said.
For his part, Quintero doesn't buy that analogy.
He thinks obscenity laws would forbid racy artwork. And he says his fish mural doesn't depict the products in his shop.
But doesn't he sell rods and reels to catch those game fish?
"That would be the equivalent of a lingerie shop having a picture of babies on the wall," he said. "It's a means to an end, that's what we sell."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.