A Port Jefferson judge has ruled that an ice cream shop owner’s free-speech rights were infringed upon two years ago when village officials cited him for hanging signs supporting then-President Donald Trump and opposing former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Village Judge Tara M. Higgins threw out citations on July 29 in which Port Jefferson building officials charged Roger’s Frigate owner George Wallis with violating village sign ordinances. Officials had said Wallis erected banners that were too large and lacked required permits.
Mayor Margot J. Garant told Newsday on Tuesday that the village filed a notice stating its intention to appeal Higgins’ decision.
In her three-page ruling, Higgins said the village sign ordinance was valid in customary circumstances, but was outweighed in this case by Wallis’ constitutional right to free speech.
“The Wallis entities’ signs reflect precisely the sort of free discussion of governmental affairs that the First Amendment was designed to promote,” Higgins wrote. “Here, the speech at issue is pure speech of a political nature on the speaker’s own private property, and clearly protected under the First Amendment.”
Vinny Seiter, who works for Wallis' company, Seaside Management, told Newsday the company was “very proud” of Higgins’ decision.
“The message on the banner was irrelevant and a lot of people focused on that instead of the fact the owner has a right to his opinion,” Seiter said Tuesday. “I find it very frustrating that it was sensationalized. … There are people out there that think the owner paid $2,000 fines, which is completely false.”
The ice cream shop, which is two blocks from Village Hall, displayed a 60-square-foot banner in January 2020 that read “In Trump We Trust,” when the U.S. Senate was weighing impeachment charges against him. The store’s owner faced daily $2,000 fines if the sign was not removed, village officials said at the time.
Later that year, the store erected a sign calling for Cuomo’s impeachment. Port Jefferson officials also cited Wallis for that sign.
Wallis was cited in January 2017 and autumn 2016 for pro-Trump signs.
The citations attracted national media attention, and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) held a 2020 rally supporting the store.
Garant said village prosecutor Richard Harris has filed a notice of appeal and requested a stay of Higgins’ decision pending the appeal.
“We’re just concerned the judge in her findings didn’t take into account certain aspects of the code," Garant said.
Village officials had said previously that Wallis’ signs violated code because they were disproportionate to the size of his two-story building at the corner of East Broadway and Main Street. He also lacked permits, they said.
Village attorney Brian Egan said officials were “disappointed” with the ruling and might “rework the statute to address the court’s holding.”
Seiter said Higgins’ decision vindicated the shop, which he said now sports a sign supporting Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign.
Wallis “[is] going to continue to be voicing his opinion,” Seiter said. “It’s his constitutional right to do that.”