Free Speech and Property Rights Under Attack in Norfolk

May 29, 2012

Government officials in Norfolk, Va., are not only taking Central Radio Company, they are telling the owners to be quiet about it.

Central Radio Company has been in Norfolk for nearly 80 years.  Founded in 1934, Central Radio serviced radio equipment for the U.S. Navy during World War II that helped protect U.S. submarines from German torpedoes.  Today, it employs more than 100 people and continues to provide electronic equipment for the Navy as well as law enforcement agencies and area schools.

You would think Norfolk would embrace this venerable and thriving small business, but instead, it is trying to push Central Radio out of the way.  Two years ago, the Norfolk Housing and Redevelopment Authority started proceedings to take Central Radio’s headquarters.  Why?  So it could give the property to Old Dominion University.  The university has no specific plans for the property.

Bob Wilson, owner of Central Radio and the nephew of the company’s founder, was not about to go down without a fight.  After losing an eminent domain challenge in state court, Wilson and his business partner commissioned a 375-square-foot banner that reads “50 YEARS ON THIS STREET, 78 YEARS IN NORFOLK, 100 WORKERS THREATENED BY EMINENT DOMAIN!”

The banner worked.  Almost immediately, Central Radio started getting calls and letters of support from Norfolk-area residents, businesses and grassroots political groups.

Norfolk officials quickly moved to silence Central Radio.  One week after the banner went up, city inspectors said the protest banner violated the sign code because the owners didn’t have a permit to hang the sign and because the sign was larger than 60 square feet.  Old Dominion University, however, and several other businesses in the area have banners that are just as large on nearby buildings.  Nevertheless, the city ordered Central Radio to either take down the banner by Saturday, May 5, or be fined up to $1,000 per day.

Obeying the city would muzzle Central Radio’s free speech rights.  Hoping to avoid the fate of the many other neighborhood buildings around Central Radio that have already been knocked down, the banner seeks to send an important message that can be viewed from over a block away.  A 60-square-foot banner would be virtually invisible to the thousands of people who pass by each day on busy Hampton Boulevard.

So that Central Radio can continue to display the banner, IJ sued the city of Norfolk on May 2.  In doing so, we hope to vindicate the idea that every American may stand up and speak out—loudly—against government abuse of power.

Robert Frommer and Erica Smith are IJ attorneys.

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