Arlington, Va.—The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today handed down a major First Amendment victory for the right to protest government abuse. The case is a victory for a St. Louis housing activist who grew so fed up with the government’s abuse of eminent domain that he painted an enormous protest message on the side of one of his buildings facing the interstate calling for the end of eminent domain abuse. The city had required him to either remove the mural or get a permit to display his protest, but then it refused to issue him a permit when he applied.
Jim Roos runs a nonprofit housing ministry, which works to provide housing for low-income residents of south St. Louis. Roos became a vocal critic of the city’s use of eminent domain for private development after the city took away several of his housing ministry’s buildings not for a public use, but for private development projects.
Roos refused to remove his protest and so he joined with the Institute for Justice to fight for his First Amendment rights. And today the 8th Circuit handed him a victory, holding emphatically that government isn’t allowed to restrict speech based on its message. The court struck down the St. Louis sign regulations that the city had tried to use to silence this anti-eminent-domain activist.
The court’s opinion held that the sign code’s definition of “sign,” as well as the code’s many exemptions allowing signs only on certain subject matters, are “impermissibly content based.” As the court explained, “to determine whether a particular object qualifies as a ‘sign’ . . . or is instead a ‘non-sign’ . . . or exempt from the sign regulations . . . , one must look at the content of the object.” Thus, a mural depicting the crest of the city of St. Louis would be allowed, but a mural like Jim’s, which protests city policy, is not.
Having determined that the sign code was content-based, the court then looked to whether it was nevertheless supported by a sufficiently compelling government interest. Although the city had asserted traffic safety and aesthetic interests, the court held that it was “not required to accept legislative explanations from a governmental entity regarding the purpose(s) for a restriction on speech without further inquiry.” When the court actually looked to the evidence, it concluded that the sign code “recite[s] those interests only at the highest order of abstraction, without ever explaining how they are served by the sign code’s regulations generally, much less by its content-based exemptions from those regulations.”
Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents Roos, said, “The court’s opinion is a case study in careful legal analysis and principled judicial engagement. Although the city asserted traffic and aesthetic justifications for its discriminatory regulations, the court refused to accept those justifications at face value and instead looked to whether there was any evidence to support them. It found none.”
Bindas said, “This case shows how interconnected our constitutional rights are—how vibrant free speech protections are essential to the preservation of our other rights and liberties, including property rights. With many courts refusing to protect property owners from eminent domain abuse, the right to protest against such a misuse of government power becomes all the more important.”
“This is a victory not just for Jim Roos’ right to protest eminent domain abuse, but for the right of every American to stand up to government whenever it abuses its power,” Bindas concluded.
Roos said, “Our mural has helped change public sentiment against eminent domain abuse in Missouri. We still have a lot of work to do to change the eminent domain laws, but free speech has allowed us to shift public sentiment in favor of property rights.”
“All of the Institute for Justice cases championing constitutionally enshrined rights happen only because a brave individual like Jim Roos is willing to stand up and challenge the government in court. This is not easy to do,” said IJ President Chip Mellor. “The personal costs of litigation are enormous burdens for ordinary people to bear in the midst of trying to live their lives. But it is these people—people like Jim Roos—who ensure the rest of the nation can enjoy the rights that are their birthright.”