Sign-waver: St. Johns County code violates First Amendment

by: Amanda Warford Updated:

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. —

For three years, Jeff Cappelleti has made a living waving signs outside local businesses in Clay and Duval counties. 

“Keep it local, buy local, and shop local,” he told Action News. “That’s my message.” 

But the signs that Cappelleti and his sign-spinning friends held Friday in St. Johns County had a very different message, aimed county officials.  

“What they did is a violation of the First Amendment free-speech right.” 

Cappelletti recently moved to St. Johns County, and was hired by a local restaurant to draw in a crowd on Thursday evening. The sign, he said, had only the name of the restaurant on one side, and a tag line on the other, but a county code enforcement official stopped and issued him a warning, ordering him to stop waiving the sign. The official claimed he was a safety and traffic hazard, and was in violation of county code, which prohibits sign-waving on scenic roads and advertising by sign walkers in general. 

A St. John's County spokesperson tells Action News that advertisements have been banned, in part, because they can be a distraction to drivers.  

“I challenge you or anyone to find a study that supports that claim,” said Jeff Stewart, the president of AAA Global Services, a sign-waving firm that employs Cappelletti. 

Stewart calls the code unclear and unfair, because personal messages are protected by the First Amendment, even when held by sign-wavers in costume. Stewart wore a yellow chicken suit during a protest of the code at each corner of the intersection of U.S. 1 and State Road 312 Friday. The sign he waved read, “Protest the St. Johns County Sign Code. Unconstitutional. Anti-Jobs. Anti-Small Business.” 

Stewart and Cappelletti are now asking county leaders to reconsider that code and let them continue to promote local business. “There's a fine line that constitutes advertising and what constitutes free speech,” said Cappelletti, “especially for small businesses that are trying to make it, because they are the local community.”