Giving government bureaucrats the power to decide which speech is acceptable turns the First Amendment on its head. It puts citizens in the position of having to justify their speech to the authorities and can lead to abuse, with the government suppressing speech it does not like. Unfortunately, that is exactly what can happen under local government “sign code” regulations restricting or eliminating outdoor communications. And it is happening in St. Louis, where the city government is trying to censor a sign protesting the abuse of eminent domain by—who else?—the city of St. Louis.
Fed up with seeing the affordable housing he owns and manages be condemned by St. Louis municipal governments to make way for private development, Jim Roos decided to fight back. He had a large mural painted on the side of one of his buildings targeted for seizure in the Bohemian Hill neighborhood. The mural calls for the city to “End Eminent Domain Abuse” and promotes the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition, which Jim helped found to advocate for reform of Missouri’s eminent domain laws. The sign’s location—on the side of a building slated for condemnation and visible from heavily traveled Interstates 44 and 55—is ideal for raising awareness about and protesting eminent domain abuse.
But, adding insult to injury, not only did St. Louis want to seize Jim’s property, it also wants to ban his protest of such abuse. After Jim raised $1,000 to paint the sign on his own building with the consent of his tenants, the city told him the mural required a permit. Then it denied his request for one. Now the city is demanding he take the mural down.
So Jim is fighting the city’s petty censorship in court, seeking to vindicate his First Amendment right to free speech. In summer 2007, he challenged the city’s attempt to suppress his speech in state court. The city then moved the case, Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, to federal court.
The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that defends property rights and First Amendment freedoms nationwide, took up Jim’s case and, on November 14, 2007, filed an amended complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. IJ represented Susette Kelo and other homeowners in Kelo v. City of New London¸ the now-infamous U.S. Supreme Court case that gave the green light to eminent domain for private development under the federal Constitution. It has also successfully fought eminent domain abuse and First Amendment violations across the country.
Jim’s ordeal shows that when the government has the ability to regulate speech, it also has the power to censor speech it finds inconvenient or disagreeable. It also demonstrates how fundamental constitutional rights are linked: Without the First Amendment right to free speech, Jim cannot effectively protest the government’s violation of his property rights.
In this case, IJ argues that the First Amendment freedom to protest government actions is a fundamental right that deserves full protection—regardless of whether the government likes the message.
Protesting Eminent Domain Abuse
To Jim Roos, bringing decent housing to St. Louis’ poor is a ministry, a way to provide for the community.
After graduating from Concordia Seminary, Jim started an inner-city property management company called Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc. (NEI). Since the 1970s, NEI has provided low-income residents of St. Louis with decent affordable housing, managing more than 200 rental units in 60-plus buildings for many different owners. One of those owners is Jim’s own non-profit housing and community development corporation, Sanctuary In The Ordinary (SITO), formed in 1990. The idea behind SITO is to provide a “sanctuary”—a safe place for people of modest means to call home. SITO currently owns 11 buildings. These are not lavish homes; they are clean, well-maintained and affordable units for the poor.
Instead of supporting their efforts, the city targeted multiple properties owned by SITO and/or managed by NEI for eminent domain abuse. In the 1990s, the city declared a neighborhood in the Gate District, including a property managed by NEI, “blighted.” In 2003, the city, through its Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), took the land and razed its buildings to make way for a private development of single-family homes. Then, in 2003 and 2004, the Garden District Commission, created by the Missouri Botanical Garden, condemned 23 buildings containing 57 apartments owned by SITO and managed by NEI, again for a residential development, Botanical Heights.
Another SITO property has been under the threat of eminent domain since 1999, when the St. Louis Board of Aldermen declared a 219-acre area, including the Bohemian Hill neighborhood, “blighted.” The ordinance authorized the LCRA to use eminent domain to condemn property for “redevelopment.” Eight years later, in January 2007, property owners in the area received letters from the LCRA saying that it was interested in acquiring their property—including SITO’s building at 1806-08 S. 13th Street.
Jim had had enough. He raised money and, with his tenants’ consent, had a mural painted on the building at 1806-08 S. 13th Street. Completed in March 2007, the mural cost approximately $1,000 and is painted red, white and black and with a slash through the words “End Eminent Domain Abuse.” The mural also promotes the websites for two anti-eminent domain abuse groups, including the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition, which Jim helped found.
People traveling on Interstates 44 and 55 can see the mural from the highway, as can residents of the nearby neighborhood of Soulard. It declares to the world that the people affected by eminent domain abuse in the city of St. Louis have had enough.
On April 10, 2007, the city’s Department of Public Safety, Division of Building and Inspection cited Jim and SITO, claiming the mural was an “illegal sign” and demanding he obtain a permit for it. Jim then applied for a permit.
Oddly, on May 17, 2007, the LCRA—not Building and Inspection, which is responsible for regulating signs and to which Jim applied—wrote to the city and said the mural did not have its approval because it ran afoul of the blight ordinance passed in 1999. Two weeks later, Building and Inspection denied Jim’s permit application. Somehow, the redevelopment agency with power over Jim’s property had injected itself into the permit process: Not only did it claim the power to take Jim’s property, it also claimed the power to stop his protest of the taking.
Unclear as to which city agency actually denied his permit, Jim filed two appeals, one to the city’s Board of Adjustment regarding Building and Inspection’s action and one to the LCRA Board regarding LCRA staff actions. In both, Jim argued that denying his permit application violated his free speech rights under the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions. Both agencies denied the appeals, prompting Jim to file two lawsuits to vindicate his First Amendment rights.
Jim and IJ prevailed in the first lawsuit: In 2008, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “the LCRA had no authority to deny the . . . sign permit,” and the LCRA Board subsequently issued a letter of apology for its conduct.
The second case, regarding the Board of Adjustment’s denial and the constitutionality of the city’s sign code, continues. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri ruled against Jim and upheld the sign code in March 2010, but Jim and IJ are now appealing that ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
St. Louis’ Sign Code: Suppressing Free Speech
St. Louis’ sign code is, unfortunately, typical of the trend by municipal governments to regulate and manage many aspects of daily life—from where you can live to what messages you can post or receive. Most sign codes restrict communications based on content or location. They often create a restrictive or confusing set of criteria that effectively limits citizens’ ability to communicate using outdoor signs, or that renders efforts to communicate using outdoor signs utterly ineffectual.
Under St. Louis’ sign code, a person wishing to speak must apply for a permit from the city to erect or post a sign. A “sign” includes “any object or device or part thereof situated outdoors which is used to advertise, identify, display, direct or attract attention to an object, person, institution, organization, business product, service, event, or location by any means.”
But the code exempts several favored categories from this definition and, thus, from any of the regulations applicable to “signs.” The exempted categories are based on content and include:
a. Flags of nations, states and cities, fraternal, religious and civic organization[s];
b. Merchandise, pictures of models of products or services incorporated in a window display;
c. Time and temperature devices;
d. National, state, religious, fraternal, professional and civic symbols or crests, or on site ground based measure display device used to show time and subject matter of religious services;
If a speaker cannot determine whether an object is a sign or, instead, falls within one of these exempted categories, “the Community Development Commission shall make such determination.” But neither the sign code nor the city provides any standards to guide the determination. In other words, the sign code gives a government agency broad discretion to regulate speech, potentially leading to arbitrary censorship.
The problem with the sign code, however, is not limited to the definition of “sign” and the definition’s content-based exemptions. Other portions of the sign code independently discriminate based on the type of sign at issue. For example, the city exempts 14 categories of signs (such as subdivision and election-related signs) from the requirement to obtain a permit. Yet a sign like Jim’s, which protests city policy, requires a permit from the city . . . the very entity it protests.
The city also exempts certain types of signs from the size and placement restrictions that it applied to Jim’s mural. For example, signs advertising real estate developments or remodeling services, and signs in the nature of decorations, can be of unlimited size and placement.
In short, under St. Louis’ sign code, citizens like Jim must seek government permission before they communicate with one another using signs; they must justify their speech, rather than the government justifying its restrictions on speech. Speakers must comply with severe restrictions on the subject matter, size and placement of the sign, and bureaucrats have considerable latitude to decide whether the speaker has met the government’s criteria.
These restrictions make it impossible for Jim to effectively convey his message protesting eminent domain abuse. The city’s sign code and its denial of a permit essentially stops Jim’s protest results in a considerable benefit to the city by taking away the speech of anyone who would dare to challenge the powers that be.
Signs and the Free Flow of Information
Signs are likely the oldest form of mass communication, with evidence of advertising dating back to the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Guttenberg himself made advertising posters. Signs along the roadside can be entertaining and enlightening, challenging and off-putting. They can reduce social isolation between the motorist and the towns through which she travels and ameliorate the monotony of driving.
The use of inexpensive means to communicate with fellow citizens is both a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution and part of a grand tradition tracing back to the founding of our country. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute . . . [A] person who puts up a sign at her residence often intends to reach neighbors, an audience that could not be reached nearly as well by other means.”
Nonetheless, government regulators, reflecting elite opinion about how cities and the landscape are supposed to look, vigorously oppose the ability of Americans to use outdoor signs to communicate with one another.
Sign Codes: Restricting Speech by Regulating the Medium
Sign codes designed to restrict free speech have spread like a plague with little backlash, thanks in part to a muddled U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego. In that case, the Court struck down a San Diego ordinance that banned noncommercial signs while permitting some commercial signs. But unfortunately, the Court also suggested that cities would be justified in banning most, if not all, billboards within a city.
The Court’s decision has caused far more problems than it has solved. The decision generated five opinions, with no majority, and the Court “failed to agree even on the framing of the issue, the standard of review, or the impact of the San Diego ordinance at issue.” As then-Justice Rehnquist noted, the case resulted in a “virtual Tower of Babel, from which no definitive principles can be clearly drawn.” As a result, courts have had a difficult time formulating a consistent set of rules to apply to regulations of outdoor signs.
Nonetheless, some courts have concluded that Metromedia does stand for one proposition: Local governments can ban billboards and severely regulate other signs to promote “esthetics” and traffic safety. In practice, this has meant that local governments can, and will, simply impose draconian restrictions on outdoor signs unless challenged in court. Given the cost of such a challenge and the uncertainty created by Metromedia, this means that cities often have had virtually no restrictions on their ability to regulate signs of all types for the last three decades.
It also means that regulators categorize outdoor signs as threats to community “esthetics” and safety. What promotes esthetics, however, is an inherently subjective standard and the exercise of government power must not be based upon mere whim. Ultimately, what counts as “esthetics” can be better stated as “whatever the Mayor and City Council want.” Moreover, sign codes are often completely unsupported by any empirical evidence that such restrictions actually enhance traffic safety.
Indeed, the city of Glendale, Ohio, threatened Chris Pagan with fines and jail time for putting a “for sale” sign in the window of his car while it was parked on the street in front of his home. Absurdly—and without a shred of evidence—the city claimed that people looking at the sign might walk into traffic and get run over. Ordinarily, such paternalism is not a justification for banning speech, but a federal district court and a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city. Fortunately, all 15 judges on the 6th Circuit agreed to rehear the case and struck down Glendale’s “for sale” sign ban as a violation of Chris’ First Amendment rights.
Similarly, Redmond, Wash., clamped down on bagel shop owner Dennis Ballen because he hired someone to carry a sign pointing customers to his out-of-the way location. The city claimed the sign was too “distracting” for drivers, but the sign ban, unsurprisingly, made special exceptions for signs of politicians and influential industries like real estate—signs that are no different in terms of esthetics or safety than a sign advertising bagels. Fortunately, that is just what the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded when it struck down Redmond’s sign ordinance as unconstitutional.
In short, sign codes that are supposed to regulate only the medium all-too-often wind up regulating the message itself, giving overreaching bureaucrats license to engage in petty censorship.
St. Louis’ Sign Code Unconstitutionally Suppresses Speech
Unfortunately, the uncertainty created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Metromedia undermines the ability of Americans to communicate with one another through the use of outdoor signs. But free speech and the free flow of information are supreme values under our Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees not only that Americans may speak their minds free from government censorship, but also that they may freely send and receive information vital to their daily lives.
The St. Louis sign code violates fundamental constitutional protections in a number of ways. First, whether one’s outdoor communication is permitted depends on the content of that communication. In other words, signs containing certain subject matters—works of art, a civic crest, etc.—are permitted, while signs containing other content—protesting eminent domain, for instance—are forbidden. Such content-based distinctions are illegal under the First Amendment.
Second, when a person wishing to display outdoor communications cannot determine whether his communication is allowed, needs a permit or is forbidden, the discretion to make that determination is vested in city officials. But the city’s sign code does not give any guidance to these officials on how to exercise this discretion. Laws that give government officials the ability to license speech cannot also give such officials unbridled discretion, as this power will likely be exercised against messages with which the government disagrees.
Most significantly, however, Jim’s mural is a uniquely effective protest of eminent domain abuse. Quite simply, there is no other medium available that conveys the threat of eminent domain abuse as powerfully as identifying a building with families living in it threatened with such abuse. By shutting down this protest, the city is shutting down Jim’s ability to effectively protest what the city is doing.
“Show Me” Eminent Domain Abuse: Missouri’s Record Deserves Protest
When it comes to eminent domain abuse in Missouri, there is much to protest. As documented by the Institute for Justice, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. New London, “Missouri ha[d] one of the worst records on eminent domain abuse in the country. Cities and towns across the state regularly use[d] eminent domain for the benefit of private parties.” This long history of abuse occurred with the acquiescence of the Missouri courts, even though the Missouri Constitution has one of the strongest provisions against eminent domain abuse in the nation. After Kelo, things did not improve. The ruling only further opened the floodgates to eminent domain abuse by Missouri governments.
In Kelo, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the political process remained one avenue (perhaps the only one) for a property owner to combat eminent domain for economic development. Forty-three states responded by reforming their eminent domain laws, through the legislature or citizen initiative, to curb abuse. Unfortunately, Missouri’s reform was relatively toothless.
After Kelo, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt appointed a task force to study the use of eminent domain in Missouri and recommend changes to the General Assembly. The task force, however, recommended weak reforms, further watered down by the Assembly when it acted on only some of the recommendations. In the end, what emerged from the process, outside of some procedural improvements for property owners, was not much different than what was in place before Kelo. One of the few useful results, however, was the establishment of an Office of Ombudsman in the Office of Public Counsel within the Department of Economic Development to assist property owners threatened with eminent domain.
Without real protection for the rights of home and small business owners from Missouri courts, the Missouri legislature or the U.S. Constitution, property owners like Jim Roos have nowhere else to turn but to their fellow citizens. To keep what is rightfully theirs, they must rally support to convince their local government to stop the abuse. Or they must take the issue of eminent domain abuse directly to the voters, as Jim and the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition have attempted to do by gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to provide real protection for home and small business owners.
In other words, the best avenue left for property owners like Jim is protest—and now the same government violating his property rights is trying to shut down the most effective method he has of protesting its actions and building support for real reform.
This case is about governmental abuse of power: power to regulate and restrict freedom of speech and power to use eminent domain not for a public use, but to transfer property to private developers. In both, the city of St. Louis has taken the wrong path. It has abused eminent domain time and time again, and now it seeks to use its power to shut down the First Amendment right to protest that abuse. It is now up to the courts to hold the city accountable.
Michael Bindas, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), is the lead attorney in Neighborhood Enterprises v. City of St. Louis. Bindas successfully represented Blayne and Julie McAferty when the city of Seattle tried to shut down their bed and breakfast under an arbitrary and irrational land use regulation, and he successfully challenged Washington’s denial of special education services to children in religious schools. He has also helped home and small business owners in Seattle and Renton, Wash., defeat governmental attempts to use bogus “blight” designations to unconstitutionally take property through eminent domain.
Bindas is assisted by IJ-WA Executive Director William Maurer. Maurer was the lead attorney in Jim’s successful case against the LCRA. Together, Maurer and Bindas achieved a unanimous victory in the Washington Supreme Court halting a government effort to treat radio commentary as a campaign contribution subject to regulation under state campaign finance laws. Maurer was also the lead attorney in a successful challenge to the city of Redmond’s sign code. He is currently litigating challenges to Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections Act,” a case before the U.S. Supreme Court which provides taxpayer money to politicians to run for office, and to a Washington law that restricts grassroots activism.
For More Information:
John Kramer, Vice President of Communications Institute for Justice 901 N. Glebe Road, Suite 900 Arlington, VA 22203
(703) 682-9320 ext. 205
 Jason R. Burt, “Comment: Speech Interests Inherent in the Location of Billboards and Signs: A Method for Unweaving the Tangled Web of Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego,” 2006 BYU L. Rev. 473, 475 (2006).
 Pagan v. Fruchey, 492 F.3d 766 (6th Cir. 2007) (en banc). The city of Glendale (unsuccessfully) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling, showing just how far regulators are willing to go to suppress speech. Glendale’s petition to the Court is on file with the Institute for Justice.
 Police Dep’t of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92, 95 (1972) (“But, above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”).
 Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 557 (1965) (“It is clearly unconstitutional to enable a public official to determine which expressions of view will be permitted and which will not or to engage in invidious discrimination among persons or groups . . . by use of a statute providing a system of broad discretionary licensing power . . . .”).
 See Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414, 424 (1988) (“The First Amendment protects appellees’ right not only to advocate their cause but also to select what they believe to be the most effective means for so doing.”).
 Mo. Const. art. I, § 28 (stating that “private property shall not be taken for private use with or without compensation, unless by consent of the owner,” and that “when an attempt is made to take private property for a use alleged to be public, the question whether the contemplated use be public shall be judicially determined without regard to any legislative declaration that the use is public”). This protection is considerably weakened, however, by another section of the Missouri Constitution permitting local governments to condemn and transfer to private entities “blighted, substandard or insanitary areas.” Mo. Const. art. VI, § 21.
 Dana Berliner, Opening the Floodgates: Eminent Domain Abuse in the Post-Kelo World 57-65 (2006) (documenting post-Kelo instances of eminent domain abuse in Missouri). For instance, the town of Sunset Hills became a nationally recognized symbol of eminent domain abuse debacles, when, less than three weeks after Kelo, the town aldermen voted to allow a private developer to begin condemnation proceedings against 85 homes to make way for a shopping mall the town hoped would generate more tax revenue. The developer, however, was unable to secure sufficient financing, could not pay the homeowners the “just compensation” due them, and left the property owners unable to purchase new housing or sell their existing homes. Id. at 63; Stanley A. Leasure & Carol J. Miller, “Eminent Domain—Missouri’s Response to Kelo,” 63 J. Mo. B. 178, 185-86 (July/August 2007).