Power to the People to Protest

October 11, 2011

By Michael Bindas

In July, IJ scored a major free speech victory vindicating the right of citizens to protest the abuse of government power. The victory, handed down by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, came on behalf of St. Louis activist Jim Roos, who has dedicated his life to helping the less fortunate through his housing ministry.

Despite Jim’s noble efforts to improve the lives of those around him, from 2000 to 2004, the city used eminent domain to acquire 24 buildings, housing some 60 low-income apartments, owned or managed by the housing groups Jim founded—Sanctuary in the Ordinary and Neighborhood Enterprises. The city took these properties not for legitimate public uses, but for private development.

Fed up with the city’s disregard for his property rights and for the people who called those buildings home, Jim did what any self-respecting American would do: He exercised his free speech rights in protest. In 2007, as the city targeted yet another Sanctuary building, he had a large mural painted on the side of it. Its message was simple but powerful: “End Eminent Domain Abuse.”

Jim quickly learned that the city’s contempt for property rights is matched by its contempt for free speech. Within days of the mural’s completion, the city cited him for failing to obtain a sign permit. In other words, Jim needed the city’s permission to criticize the city.

Jim promptly applied for a permit and—no surprise—the city denied it.

Jim Roos, however, is not one to back down when government oversteps its bounds. He teamed up with IJ to challenge the sign regulations the city was using to try to silence him. After a loss in the trial court, Jim and IJ took the fight to the 8th Circuit, which held the city’s definition of a “sign,” as well as its various exemptions for favored speech, unconstitutional.

In a textbook example of principled judicial engagement, the court refused to take the asserted justifications for the regulations—traffic safety and aesthetics—at face value. Holding that a court is “not required to accept legislative explanations from a governmental entity regarding the purpose(s) for a restriction on speech without further inquiry,” the court examined the evidence and concluded that safety and aesthetics were not “served by the sign code’s regulations generally, much less by its content-based exemptions from those regulations.”

Intent on preserving its ability to decide who gets to speak and what they get to say, the city asked the entire appeals court to rehear the case. In August, the court declined to do so. The only question remaining is whether the city will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. If it does, we have just three words for them: Bring it on.

Jim’s case shows how interconnected our constitutional rights are—how free speech is essential to preserve our other rights, including property rights. The win is a victory not just for Jim’s right to protest eminent domain abuse, but for the right of every American to stand up to government whenever it abuses its power.

Michael Bindas is an IJ senior attorney.

Also in this issue

Judicial Engagement Catching on in Courts Across the Nation

“My Streets! My Eats!” Campaign Champions Chicago’s Mobile Food Vendors

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