July 18, 2016

Florida county trespassing on free speech and property rights

By Christina M. Martin Attorney
The Goodwins
The Goodwins

Today, PLF filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court to defend the free speech and property rights of Edward and DeLanie Goodwin. The Goodwins built their beachfront home in Walton County 38 years ago. Today, they live there much of the year, enjoying the coast with their daughter, grandchildren, and extended family. Like many beachfront owners across Florida, the Goodwins own the sandy beach in their backyard down to the mean high water line. The public owns the wet beach seaward of that line. But Walton County is trying to erase the boundary between public and private property.

Spring Break and the summer draw large crowds to Walton County’s beautiful beaches. While most beachgoers are respectful, sometimes these crowds bring loud parties, alcohol abuse, and littering. The Goodwins, despite clearly marking their property’s boundaries and posting “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs, have still encountered strangers intruding on their land. At times, individuals have set up tents, allowed their pets to defecate, and left refuse on the Goodwins’ property.  Approximately once a year, strangers have crossed their dry beach without permission and entered their home. Understandably, the Goodwins—like landowners anywhere else—want to protect their family and control who is allowed on their land.

But Walton County, with an eye to acquiring the dry-sand areas without paying owners for them, voted last month to stop the Goodwins and their neighbors from protecting their land. The County banned all “obstructions” along the beach, including “no trespass” or “private property” signs. As you might imagine, unless the Goodwins and their neighbors use signs and markers to indicate where their property begins and ends, it will be very difficult for well-meaning members of the public (let alone less honorable individuals) to respect their private property rights. In fact, the Walton County Sheriff will not enforce trespass laws without them. Thus, without the ability to put up signs and mark the boundary of their property, the Goodwins will lose important private property rights, including their right to exclude strangers and protect their family’s privacy.

The County’s ban on signs along the beachfront portion of the land is unconstitutional censorship. The First Amendment protects the Goodwins’ rights to post signs on their property. The County’s ban leaves the Goodwins with no reasonable alternative means to alert the beachgoing public to their property rights, or to speak about other matters.TwoSigns

A few weeks ago, the County sent the Goodwins a letter threatening to fine them $500 if they do not take down their boundary markers and signs by July 15, 2016.  In response, the Goodwins are fighting the County’s censorship with the help of Pacific Legal Foundation. They also added a new sign to their property that says, “If the County Wants My Private Beach for Public Use, It Must Pay Me For It – US Constitution.”

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Goodwin v. Walton County, Florida

Under a new Florida law, signed on March 23, 2018, Walton County, Florida, can no longer try to steal free access to private property. County officials had enacted an ordinance banning signs on privately owned beaches, in hopes of allowing the public to trespass on private beaches without having to pay for the use. County officials threatened PLF clients Edward and Delanie Goodwin with large fines for keeping in place two “private property” signs and one small sign saying “If Walton County Wants My Property, It Must Pay For It — U.S. Constitution.” The Goodwins argued that the First Amendment protects their right to post signs on their property, and that the ban left the Goodwins with no reasonable alternative means to alert the beachgoing public to their property rights. The new state law now requires the county to go to court if they want to claim any right for the public to use private property.

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