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Offensive signs cause stir in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood

Neighbors noticed these signs on display Saturday at this home at 303 27th Ave N in St. Petersburg. The signs had been taken down by Sunday evening.
Neighbors noticed these signs on display Saturday at this home at 303 27th Ave N in St. Petersburg. The signs had been taken down by Sunday evening.
Published Jun. 6, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Behind the fuchsia flowers and the bubbling fountain, the signs broadcast their messages in black capitals: No fags. No Jews. No infidels. No retards. The last sign, an allusion to President Donald Trump's campaign slogan, bore only the words "… Great again!"

On Saturday evening, the signs appeared in front of 303 27th Ave. N. Neighbors bristled in response. They posted frantically on the neighborhood forum, trying to figure out how to get the signs taken down. Cars doubled back past the house as people stopped to gawk and snap photos. By Sunday evening, the signs were gone, but for the neighborhood, the damage had been done.

City code allows "free speech signs" on private property and the city cannot differentiate based on content. City officials declined to comment on whether the signs violated any standards for hate speech.

"It's very unnerving," said Kim Wasserman, 54, whose house shares an alley with the one that posted the signs.

The neighborhood has plenty of families with kids and retirees who sit out on their porches. Normally, it's a welcoming place.

After a complaint was made, St. Petersburg city government started reviewing the signs to see if they violated any codes or ordinances, said Ben Kirby, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman. But after the signs came down, the review stopped.

Monday morning, in the back yard of the house, a man stood alone, with a T-shirt over his head to shield him from the rain. He dabbed white paint on a shed while Elvis Presley howled Hard Headed Woman through the stereo.

The man declined to comment.

The president of the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association, Peter Motzenbecker, said he was appalled by the signs and plans to bring them up at the next neighborhood meeting.

"From what I understand, this falls under free speech rights. I just can't believe that what I would consider hate speech is protected," Motzenbecker said. "We have a very diverse neighborhood, and this does not reflect it."

The white and green house where the signs were posted is owned by Roland Price, according to property records. Police have been called to the address 44 times since 2004 for reasons including aggravated assault, noise complaints, criminal mischief, theft and domestic incidents.

Carol Fontaine, another neighbor, said that in the past, Price had made a habit of posting inflammatory signs. Many people, Fontaine said, were shocked and ill at ease.

"Who would do a thing like that," Fontaine said.

John Hughes, 64, lived next door to Price for almost 20 years. He remembers signs Price used to put up about Osama bin Laden and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and how people would come by and take pictures. But to him, the signs weren't threatening.

"That's just Roland," Hughes said. "He has a right to say what he wants."

Price was a good neighbor, Hughes said, who put a roof on his house for a decent rate. The two men got along, Hughes said, and he doesn't understand why everyone else can't just ignore the signs like he did.

"Who cares if it offends somebody," Hughes said. "Whatever you say, it's going to offend somebody somewhere."

Contact Taylor Telford at ttelford@tampabay.com or (513) 376-3196. Follow @taylormtelford.