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Clearwater shop wins a round in debate with city over fish mural

Owner Herb Quintero, at the Complete Angler in January, appears to have a strong case. 

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Owner Herb Quintero, at the Complete Angler in January, appears to have a strong case. 

CLEARWATER — A bait and tackle shop has won an initial victory in its federal lawsuit against the city of Clearwater over the shop's fish mural. But more litigation is in the works.

U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore issued an injunction forbidding Clearwater from levying any more fines on the Complete Angler for its mural while the case is in litigation. The city also can't fine the shop at 705 N Fort Harrison Ave. for covering its mural with a banner displaying the First Amendment.

The tackle shop's owners, Herb and Lori Quintero, say a mural of game fish on an outside wall of their store is art. The city says it's an unauthorized sign and a code violation.

In issuing the injunction Thursday, Whittemore agreed with a recommendation by U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins, who recently heard arguments from both sides and concluded that "both the painting and the banner are noncommercial speech protected by the First Amendment."

The Quinteros have paid nearly $700 in fines, and the city had threatened steeper fines if they didn't remove the mural and banner. The injunction puts a stop to the fines until the court case is decided.

"We're very pleased with the ruling. However, we suspect this is not the end of it," said Herb Quintero, who plans to eventually remove the First Amendment banner and auction it on eBay to benefit charity.

Based on comments from the two federal judges who have reviewed the evidence, the city's case looks weak. The city filed objections to Jenkins' findings, but Whittemore disagreed with the city and agreed with Jenkins, who questioned the legal validity of the city's position.

In his ruling, Whittemore wrote that Jenkins had correctly determined that the city's crackdown on the fish mural based on the city's sign ordinance "does not withstand strict scrutiny."

The city has repeatedly deferred comment, saying it will abide by the judge's eventual decision in the case.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater shop wins a round in debate with city over fish mural 04/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009 6:17pm]
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