Artists sue City of St. Augustine

Historic City News has verified that on yesterday, as threatened, a group of downtown artists filed suit against the city in United States District Court through their attorneys; Sheppard, White, Thomas & Kachergus, P.A. of Jacksonville and Thomas E. Cushman, Esquire of St. Augustine.

The lawsuit alleges that the City of St. Augustine has violated and seeks to violate the constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs by enforcing ordinances that have been adopted with the intent and effect of “restraining and chilling Plaintiffs’ visual artistic expression in traditional public fora”.

The artists who filed this suit in Jacksonville yesterday are Bruce Bates, Richard Childs, Elena Hecht and Kate Merrick.

Bruce Bates is a visual character artist who made his living creating artistic caricatures for tourists in the historical district of St. Augustine.

Richard Childs is a retired art teacher and is a sculptor and painter.

Elena Hecht is a photographer.

Kate Merrick is a painter who creates portraits and prints.

At issue is whether or not the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the artist’s rights to create, display and sell their artistic creations on public property in the historic district of St. Augustine.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of City Ordinance 2007-23 which amended City Code § 22-6.

The artists are seeking a declaration from the court that the city code is unconstitutional as well as a preliminary and permanent injunctive relief prohibiting further enforcement of the code and monetary damages, including attorney’s fees, resulting from the enforcement and threatened enforcement of City Code § 22-6 against the Plaintiffs.

The artists allege that as a result, they have suffered damages including loss of income, loss of enjoyment of life, severe emotional distress and mental anguish.

In response to complaints from some downtown residents and businesses, together with their responsibility to keep passable and safe the public sidewalks, streets and alleys in congested downtown areas, the City of St. Augustine has attempted to implement ordinances restricting the use of its public high-traffic tourist locations.

The City has enjoyed some success in improving the problems associated with aggressive panhandlers in the same area of town, but, as of yet, in relation to street performers and street artists, the City remains challenged.

The 14 page complaint cites, among other cases, the 2000 decision of the Court in Celli v. City of St. Augustine which struck down the original 1983 version of City Code § 22-6.

In recent years, the City has restricted the display of art, banned street artists from St. George Street in exchange for use of the Plaza, implemented a “lottery” permit system in the Plaza, exempted some visual artists from the lottery system and refunded permit fees that the artists contend were collected illegally.

The City later abolished the lottery permit system and ultimately banned street artists from the Plaza entirely.

In 2003, the city code was amended to ban street performances including the sale – but not creation – of visual art on a designated section of St. George Street.

In 2007, Ordinance 2007-23 was adopted, banning the sale of any goods or merchandise – including art – in the historic preservation districts; including the Plaza.

The City has suggested that what the artists describe as “empty lots and narrow street corners” and are far from public view, are sufficient alternative channels for the artists to express themselves.

The City implemented restrictions in the 2007 ordinance on tables, chairs and signs including which the artists describe as “crippling” and allege further limit their almost “non-existent” outlets for espression.

The artists are demanding a trial by jury on all counts of their complaint.

Share your thoughts with our readers >>