GUEST COLUMN: Walton County couple speaks up for property owners’ First Amendment rights

CHRISTINA M. MARTIN | Special to the Daily News

“Freedom is indivisible,” as Ronald Reagan once said. “There is no ‘s’ on the end of it. You can erode freedom, diminish it, but you cannot divide it and choose to keep ‘some freedoms’ while giving up others.”

The truth of those words is on display right now in Walton County, in the Florida Panhandle, where some beachfront homeowners have just sued the local government over a new law that stops them from maintaining signs on their own private beach property.

The lawsuit by Edward and DeLanie Goodwin challenges the county’s assault on their First Amendment rights. But their ability to protect their privacy, personal safety, and property rights is also at stake. Indeed, the case highlights the fundamental connection between property rights and other core rights, such as freedom of speech. You can’t erode one, as Reagan would say, without undermining others.

The Goodwins built their beachfront home 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 from that line down to the Gulf waters.

But with its sign ban, 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. Despite clearly marking their property’s boundaries and posting “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs, the Goodwins 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 the Goodwins’ 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 alert the public, it will be very difficult for well-meaning individuals (let alone less honorable individuals) to respect their private property rights. In fact, the Walton County Sheriff will not enforce trespass laws along the beach unless owners clearly delineate their property lines.

Thus, without the ability to put up signs and mark the boundary of their land, the Goodwins will lose important private property rights, including their right to protect their family’s privacy. It also makes it harder for them to protect the fragile vegetation along the edge of their beach property, which secures and stabilizes the upland dunes.

After the Goodwins sued, the county suspended enforcement of its sign ban. But the law has not been repealed, and officials are apparently poised to defend it in court.

They should have an uphill fight, because their ban on signs on beachfront private property amounts to out-and-out censorship. The First Amendment protects the Goodwins’ right to post signs on their property. The county’s ban leaves the Goodwins, and other waterfront homeowners and landowners, with no reasonable alternative way to let the beach going public know about their property boundary and their property rights, or to post messages about other issues for that matter.

The lawsuit itself underscores a crucial message: For all of us, owning property comes with a cluster of interrelated rights, and government cannot try to erase some without imperiling the others. Every homeowner and property owner, whether living at the coast or far inland, owes the Goodwins thanks for defending that important principle.

Christina M. Martin is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation’s office in Palm Beach Gardens.