Arlington, Va.—In a victory for the right to protest government abuse, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled that the St. Louis Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority can be held accountable for violating First Amendment rights when it tried to suppress a mural opposing the agency’s use of eminent domain for private development.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit rejected the agency’s bizarre claim that it could not be sued for violating First Amendment rights because it had no business regulating such signs in the first place. The ruling clears the way for a free speech lawsuit challenging the LCRA’s attempted censorship to proceed before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, where a similar challenge to the city’s effort to take down the mural is pending.
“The court got it right: The LCRA should be held accountable for trying to shut down a powerful protest of its eminent domain abuse,” said Bill Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “This is an important victory for citizens seeking to hold the government accountable when it goes beyond its authority. It means the government does not get a free pass when it attempts to suppress a protest of its own actions.”
IJ represents Jim Roos, whose striking protest mural—painted on a building threatened by eminent domain for private development and visible from heavily traveled Interstates 44 and 55—brought out the government censors.
Jim speaks from experience, having seen the affordable housing he owned and managed through Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc., and the non-profit Sanctuary in the Ordinary face condemnation for private development.
But the government of St. Louis does not like Jim’s protest of its actions. First, the city insisted he apply for a permit, and then it denied his application. Adding insult to injury, the city’s Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority—the very agency with eminent domain authority over the Bohemian Hill neighborhood where Jim’s mural is—inserted itself into the permitting process to deny permission for the sign.
Jim filed suit challenging the city’s and the LCRA’s denial of his permit, but a federal district court said that the LCRA could not be sued for violating Jim’s First Amendment rights because it did not have authority to regulate signs. Today’s ruling reverses that decision.
Thanks to today’s ruling Jim’s challenge to the city’s and the LCRA’s denial of his permit will be considered by the federal district court.