Workers Group Sues Palm Beach, Accuses Town of Making It Impossible to Protest

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Sun Sentinel/TNS) -

Palm Beach, one of America’s wealthiest towns, is facing a legal showdown with a human-rights group protesting unfair working conditions for farmworkers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has sued Palm Beach in federal court and is accusing the town of maintaining unconstitutional ordinances that make it impossible to stage a protest.

A town attorney, though, says protesters aren’t barred from demonstrating as long as they follow the town’s ordinances.

Palm Beach, a refuge for the rich and famous, has found itself in court before on various First Amendment challenges, such as the height of the flagpole at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

The coalition wants to march across West Palm Beach, over the Royal Park Bridge into Palm Beach, through the town’s fabled Worth Avenue shopping district, and then conclude with a rally at the town’s docks on March 12.

It’s part of a campaign to sway Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, a pledge of large purchasers of produce to protect the rights of farmworkers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food restaurants have signed.

The group chose Palm Beach for the protest because Nelson Peltz, chairman of Wendy’s Board, owns a mansion there. Located near the iconic Breakers resort, Peltz’s oceanfront estate is valued at more than $100 million by the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office.

The coalition has staged numerous marches in Miami, New York and elsewhere since 2001, said Steve Hitov, general counsel for the Coalition of Immokalee. He expects about 500 people will participate in the demonstration.

“In every march we have ever done, there has never been a single arrest,” Hitov said. “They have nothing to be afraid of except the message.”

John “Skip” Randolph, town attorney for Palm Beach, said the town’s ordinances are constitutional and don’t bar anyone from demonstrating. Protesters just have to follow the rules.

“In general, this group was not prohibited from demonstrating within the town,” he said. “The town allows demonstrations, but they are subject to the town’s codes. We believe the town’s codes allow for reasonable demonstrations and do not impede the ability to demonstrate.”

The lawsuit takes issue with several provisions. Town ordinance prohibits making noise “that tends to annoy the community” or disturbs three or more people. Banners and flags (other than those of governmental bodies) are prohibited during parades. Using a loudspeaker to attract attention to a “performance” or “show” is prohibited, along with decorated cars.

In the lawsuit, the coalition argues the rules “are so overbroad that virtually no demonstration could be held that would not violate them.” The protesters are asking the judge to bar the town from enforcing those rules and allow the demonstration to proceed.

David Hudson, an ombudsman for the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, disagreed with the town attorney and said some — but not all — of the town’s rules are “constitutionally problematic.”

Cities can prohibit noise above a certain decibel level, but officials can’t ban noise that is annoying to others, he said. Prohibiting banners, flags and decorated vehicles are also problematic provisions, Hudson said.

“I would predict that the city will need to revise several parts of its ordinance,” said Hudson, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University.

The bigger question is whether Palm Beach’s ordinances provide town officials with “unbridled discretion” to issue or deny permits, Hudson said.

The coalition has been engaged in extensive negotiations with Palm Beach since January, according the lawsuit.

Initially, the town denied the coalition’s request to march on public streets, carry banners and signs, use amplification and use a flatbed truck to direct the marchers, the lawsuit states.

On Feb. 24, town officials appeared willing to allow demonstrators to hold signs and banners and use bullhorns to direct marchers, but despite the changes, “the town’s ordinance and statutes otherwise remain in full force,” according to the lawsuit.

Hitov said the town’s concessions are inadequate because protesters have to stop at intersections, making it difficult for them to walk together.

Famous for its well-manicured hedges and elite social clubs, Palm Beach maintains a detailed set of ordinances. For instance, leaf blowers cannot emit more than 65 decibels as measured from 50 feet away, and blowing yard trash or clippings into the street is strictly prohibited.

But Palm Beach’s ordinances — aimed at protecting the quality of life that draws the nation’s wealthy — have been subjected to court challenges.

A 1985 federal court ruling struck down a requirement that waiters, janitors and other low-wage employees working in the town be fingerprinted, photographed and carry identification cards at all times.

Presidential contender Donald Trump waged a public battle with the town in 2006 after he was found to be in violation of town ordinances by hoisting a massive American flag on an 80-foot flagpole.

Trump sued, accused the town of violating his First Amendment rights and demanded $25 million in damages.

The matter was settled out of court. Trump agreed to lower the pole to 70 feet and pay $100,000 to charities dealing with veterans or the American flag.