Under the watchful eye of St Augustine Police Assistant Chief Anthony Cuthbert and Commander Jennifer Michaux, a bicycle officer patrols the Plaza de la Constitution and artists protesting their plight. If they set up to paint, sculpt, or photograph, they face a fine and up to 60 days in jail.
Historic City News has followed the proceedings as the city has made its way in and out of court. St Augustine is already under a federal district court order not to infringe the constitutionally protected freedom of expression guaranteed to creative artists under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Ironically, a paid professional wedding photographer posed a recently engaged couple just steps away without confrontation.
A second lawsuit was filed in the same court by three of the four original plaintiffs who say they continue to be banned, or face civil and criminal prosecution by city police, if they utilize public space in the East or West Plaza, or the sidewalks along the most active streets downtown.
The city and artists have entered into mediation in an attempt to settle the issue, but this is not the first time such efforts have failed. The artists blame city management and an unfriendly city commission for allowing manager John Regan to continue to ignore their civil and constitutionally protected rights.
Under the previous city manager, Bill Harriss, an example was made of the late Greg Travous who painted under the moniker “Suvo”. Photographs of artists being handcuffed by then patrolman, now Chief of Police, Barry Fox, circulated the Internet and have since galvanized support for the artists by cultural advocates and residents alike who say they miss the creative works of art in the Plaza.
As the next attempt at mediation of the current lawsuit comes to the table in the next couple of weeks, one artist made their point very clearly that city officials pick and choose who to prosecute, calling it “selective enforcement”.
“How is it that there are dozens of weddings in St. Augustine, with many out-of-town, paid commercial photographers (who have no business license in St Augustine), who are repeatedly setting up their cameras on tripods, taking photos of bridesmaids and groomsmen, all weekend long, walking all over the grass in the Plaza?” one artist rhetorically asked Historic City News editor Michael Gold. “Photography, including selling photography, is protected according to several Federal Civil Rights Rulings. Yet pleinair artists, with no interest in selling, are treated as criminals and face 60-days in jail for setting up an easel and painting in a St Augustine City Park.”
Some of the artists say with Harriss, it was a vendetta against them personally. However, much needed support from city commissioners, including Nancy Sikes-Kline and Leanna Freeman who originally stood up for the artist’s rights, has faded. Under City Manager John Regan, a Harriss appointee and hand-picked successor, artists close to the lawsuit say when it comes time to do the right thing by them, Regan’s actions closely mimic his predecessor — like the fruit of the poisonous tree.
Historic City News will update readers on the cost and outcome of this lawsuit as soon as a decision is reached. In the meantime, the private law firm representing city taxpayers continues to put more time on the clock, because neither the city attorney Isabelle Lopez, or assistant city attorney Denise May, handle this level of litigation.