As Liberty & Law readers know, local governments regularly use regulations of signs and other forms of outdoor communication to restrict speech. The courts largely let governments get away with burdensome restrictions on signs, which often amount to near-total bans on outdoor advertising. Tragically, in the hands of the government, regulating signs often conceals efforts to quash messages with which bureaucrats disagree. That is exactly what is happening in St. Louis, where the city is trying to shut down a protest against eminent domain abuse.
Missouri has one of the worst records in the nation regarding eminent domain abuse, and after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo, local governments in Missouri went on an eminent domain abuse bender, seizing homes for private development at an alarming rate. (For an example, see page 12.)
Jim Roos knows Missouri’s appalling record in this area all too well. In the 1970s, Jim started an inner-city property management company called Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc. (NEI). NEI’s purpose is to provide low-income residents of St. Louis with decent, affordable housing. Then, in 1990, Jim formed Sanctuary In The Ordinary (SITO), a non-profit housing and community development corporation. SITO purchases apartment houses and rents well-maintained units to low-income residents seeking affordable housing. The idea behind SITO is to provide a “sanctuary”—a safe place for people of modest means to call home.
To Jim and his wife Judy, their effort to bring decent housing to St. Louis’ poor is a ministry, a way to give something to their fellow man. Instead of receiving support from the city, however, properties owned by SITO or managed by NEI have consistently been the target of eminent domain abuse by the municipal government in St. Louis.
Having been on the receiving end of this abuse too many times, Jim had a large anti-eminent domain abuse mural painted on a building threatened with condemnation in St. Louis. The city told him the mural required a permit and then denied his request for one. It then told him his sign had to come down.
Thankfully, however, Jim takes neither abuse of property rights nor petty censorship lying down. Jim fought back and, with the Institute for Justice’s help, took the city to court to vindicate his right to free speech. Jim’s ordeal shows that when the government has the ability to regulate and restrict speech, it inevitably ends up restricting speech that it finds inconvenient or disagreeable.
Jim’s case also demonstrates that all our constitutional rights are intertwined—when one right is weakened, the others start to fall. Having largely dispensed with the right to own private property, governments in Missouri are now seeking to further chip away at protections for free speech. It is now up to a federal court in St. Louis to hold the city accountable. Our goal is to strengthen free speech as Jim fights the demise of his property rights. As Jefferson understood, free speech is a bedrock of our Constitution and essential for the eventual restoration of property rights.