Key West officials had some new discussions about two old issues during their Jan. 11 meeting.

Noise and the display of merchandise in store windows that could be considered profane, offensive or sexually explicit are two recurring topics in city government, and this month was no different.

The city commission passed a change to local laws that requires businesses remove “obscene, vulgar, and sexually oriented materials” from storefront displays where they can be seen by minors, and instead placed in locations that are not visible from the public right of way. It also makes it illegal to sell such materials to minors, and requires signs warning patrons of the content therein.

Despite some discussion and prior concerns about First Amendment and free speech issues, the change passed unanimously, as City Attorney Ron Ramsingh explained in a memo that judges have upheld limitations on free speech if they were content-based, which the new law is.

Also, Ramsingh pointed out, the new rules do not ban any businesses from carrying, selling or even displaying such materials, but rather require them to display it inside the store in an area not visible from the street or sidewalk.

Evidence of the potentially offensive merchandise is easily seen during a stroll down Duval Street, where shop windows frequently showcase shirts with sayings that include things like, “I’m just one big, f—ing ray of sunshine,” and others with obvious sexual innuendo and profanity.

The merchandise rule passed with minimal discussion, and the support of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, whose executive director, Kerry Baker, spoke in support of it on behalf of the business organization.

Merchandise that includes profanity or sexually explicit material may not be displayed in storefront windows where it is visible from the street and sidewalks, city officials decided on Jan. 11. CONTRIBUTED

What about noise?

Discussion of potential new limits on noise levels coming from downtown bars and other businesses and venues, however, took a decidedly different turn, and ultimately failed to pass.

Back in April, Mayor Teri Johnston, along with Commissioners Jimmy Weekley and Clayton Lopez, had directed City Manager Al Childress to work with the city attorney in reviewing the city’s sound control ordinance and bring back some proposed changes to address complaints the elected officials were receiving.

Childress organized three community meetings in May 2023, when several local musicians and business owners opposed any changes to the noise ordinance. 

Childress then asked Jim Young, the director of the city’s code compliance department, to draft some potential changes to the noise ordinance.

Young proposed reducing the number of violations that could eventually lead to the suspension or cancellation of a business’s entertainment license, which allows for amplified music and other sound.

Currently, businesses need three proven violations — which come after a verbal warning and a period of time to correct the code violation — before they could be subject to suspension or revocation of their entertainment license, Young said.

“Never in my 25 years have we ever suspended or revoked an entertainment license,” Young told the city commission on Jan. 11. “The reason I proposed changing it to one violation instead of three is because we’ll still give a verbal warning and we’ll still give a notice of code violation before we issue an official violation,” and that notice comes with a period of time to correct the matter.

Young added, when asked by the mayor, that his department had received 49 complaints about noise in 2023. 

Commissioner Lissette Cuervo Carey asked how many of those had come from the same people complaining multiple times, and Young said he would have to check.

The public comment period heard from more than a dozen residents — musicians, music lovers, bartenders and business owners — who strongly opposed the change.

Music photographer Ralph De Palma, who has three coffee table books of photos of the local live music scene, compared the 49 complaints to the overall number of live music performances that occur in Key West each year.

“We have more than 17,000 performances a year with all the performers in each venue at different time slots, so to have 49 complaints seems to me that we’re doing pretty good,” De Palma said. “Plus, music in Key West is really pretty concentrated in a six-block area. We take pride in that, and in the safety of this town, where people can walk at night between different venues. I’ve been here 20 years and we’ve had this discussion five times, so I ask you to please tread lightly.”

Others who spoke pointed out the subjectivity of noise complaints and investigations, especially given the proposal that would have eliminated decibel readings as an objective measure of objectionable noise and left it up to the code officers.

Restaurant owner Bill Lay reminded the commission that “Key West is a baseball town,” and during home baseball games, when someone hits a home run, “This place goes nuts. The sound is huge, and technically, those people at the game are breaking the law. But will they get a ticket? The focal point here has been musicians, but there’s also Harleys cruising down Duval  that can be louder than a band.”

Longtime musician Larry Baeder also disagreed with the subjectivity of the new noise ordinance and instead suggested “we all put our heads together to come up with something workable.”

He volunteered to be part of such a group, as did Commissioner Clayton Lopez, who is also a musician.

Johnston reminded everyone of a comment Commissioner Billy Wardlow had made at the start of the lengthy discussion, “We just have to respect each other. Several of us up here get repeated complaints from residents.”

In the end, the commission shot down the newly proposed noise rules and decided to pursue a working group with local musicians and business owners to possibly draft new revisions.

And so, for now, the shows go on all over town.

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.