Town Settles Lawsuit With Street Preacher

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Many Fort Myers Beach residents and visitors know who Adam LaCroix is. Commonly referred to as the street preacher, LaCroix was often seen in Times Square loudly pushing his religious beliefs, which were not always kid-friendly.

LaCroix does not need a permit for what he does. His preaching on public property is protected by the First Amendment. He has every right to say what he wants to say, to whoever he wants to say it to, wherever he wants to say it.

When he picks up a bullhorn to amplify his message, the only recourse the town has, when someone complains, is to measure his sound level to see if he’s violating the noise ordinance.

Another weapon the town has in its arsenal is a sign ordinance. And that’s what LaCroix’s lawsuit was all about, which was filed in January of 2022.

After being warned about carrying a sign in October, LaCroix was issued a ticket for violating the town’s sign ordinance in December. For that, he sued the town. LaCroix’s suit said the town violated his constitutional rights to express his religious beliefs by carrying a portable sign. And his lawsuit says when he was issued the code violation by the town he was “embarrassed.”

After LaCroix called town hall about the sign ticket, he convinced the town to drop the sign violation charge. However, he was unsure if he’d be ticketed again if he carried a portable sign, which he believes he has every right to do. He said that worry “has caused, and will continue to cause him to suffer extreme hardship, both actual and impending, irreparable injury and damage.”

So LaCroix sued the town over the sign.

In June of 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Sheri Chappell sided with the town. She ruled that the town’s sign ban was OK because it did not discriminate against any content. It was content neutral.

Upon appeal, LaCroix prevailed. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stated “content neutrality does not save the town’s ordinance from First Amendment scrutiny. These signs are a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.”

The court went even further in criticizing the town ordinance: “A Fort Myers Beach resident may not hold a sign by hand, he may not put a sign in the ground if it is taller than 18 inches, he may not display his sign on his car, and he cannot place any signs in a public place. Short of a bullhorn and running his voice hoarse, a Fort Myers Beach resident has precious few, if any, alternative channels of communication.”

The Court went on to say that the government restriction must also allow a speaker the ability to effectively communicate his message to the intended audience in face of the ordinance’s restrictions. “In sharp contrast, a resident of Fort Myers Beach who sought to preach to a group of passing motorists or to communicate that message without physically approaching the listener would be unable to do so anywhere in the town.”

The Court said the town’s total ban on portable signs was likely a violation of free speech. “These signs hold a unique place in America’s proud tradition of free speech. Because the ordinance completely bans this core canvas of expression, it likely violates the First Amendment, both facially and as applied. It does not leave open meaningful, effective alternative channels for communication. The small categories of signs the ordinance permits are no substitute.”

After that ruling, town staff and town attorney John Herin went to work to rewrite the town’s sign ordinance to align it more with the Court of Appeals ruling. The changes were made and a new sign ordinance was approved by the Town Council. That change apparently led to a settlement with LaCroix which was announced earlier this week. LaCroix dropped his lawsuit against the town and the town’s insurance carrier agreed to pay LaCroix’s attorney’s fees which were a little under $50,000.

 

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