Arlington, Va.—In a double blow against free speech and property rights, the city of Norfolk, Va., is not only planning to take a thriving business using its power of eminent domain, but it also wants to censor a powerful and highly visible sign protesting the city’s action.
The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that defends free speech and property rights nationwide, filed a suit in federal court today defending the First Amendment right to protest government actionon behalf of Central Radio Company, one of its owners, Bob Wilson, and its vice president, Kelly Dickinson. The city has ordered the sign to be removed by May 5. The Institute is also seeking a temporary restraining order that will allow the protest banner to remain in place. Central Radio, which has been building and repairing ship-based radio equipment in Norfolk since Bob’s father founded the company in 1934, has been involved in a two-year battle with the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) to keep its property. (The NRHA is run by a seven-member board appointed by Norfolk City Council.) The NRHA condemned more than 170 residential, institutional and business buildings in the Hampton Boulevard area near Old Dominion University, claiming the area was blighted, in order to hand the properties over to the university. The university currently has no specific plans for the use of Central Radio’s property. After losing an initial fight in Virginia trial court to keep their property, Bob and Kelly decided to take their battle to the court of public opinion. With Central Radio co-owner Ed Dickinson, they hung a 375-square-foot banner on the side of their building that reads:
50 YEARS ON THIS STREET
78 YEARS IN NORFOLK
THREATENED BY EMINENT DOMAIN!
In an effort to shut down the protest against government abuse, city inspectors soon came calling and cited Central Radio for violating Norfolk’s sign code. The code prevents Central Radio from posting a sign any larger than 60 square feet—one sixth the size of their current sign, which can currently be read from blocks away on busy Hampton Road.
“We wanted to make a statement about the importance of our business and the injustice of the city’s actions,” said Wilson. “It is impossible to do that with a small sign that is barely readable even from across the street.”
This is not the first time that a city has tried to prevent a property owner from protesting the taking of their land through eminent domain. In 2007, St. Louis’s attempted to use its sign code to prevent property owner Jim Roos from protesting eminent domain abuse with a large mural on the side of his building. IJ represented the property owner and won an important victory for free speech in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. IJ also defended the property owners in the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo case, which upheld the use of eminent domain for private economic development.
“The First Amendment protects the right to protest government action,” said IJ Attorney Erica Smith. “Central Radio’s banner harms no one and is the most effective way for them to rally support for their cause.”
Indeed, while the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of eminent domain in Kelo, the Court noted that citizens were free to fight the use of eminent domain through the political process at the local level. Central Radio is attempting to do just that, by focusing attention on government action that violates the property rights of a thriving business.
“Sign codes often give local bureaucrats license to stifle speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Steve Simpson. “When the government has the ability to regulate speech, it also has the power to censor speech it does not like.”
Old Dominion University, which will receive Central Radio’s property if the NRHA is able to take it, has several large banners on its buildings comparable in size to the Bob and Kelly’s only a few blocks away that the city apparently allows.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment protects the right to speak out using signs like Central Radio’s banner, which are often the most effective way for individuals to protest government action.
“Since we put up our sign, we have received calls and emails from other Norfolk residents and businesses cheering us on,” said Central Radio Vice President Kelly Dickenson. “People are tired of getting pushed around by the city, and many are delighted that someone hasstood up tothe abuse.”
“If the First Amendment means anything,” concluded Simpson, “it means that Americans like Bob Wilson and Kelly Dickinson have the right to effectively protest government abuse and build support for meaningful reform—without having to get government approval.”
In regards to the underlying taking that sparked this protest, the city never argued that Central Radio’s property is blighted. Instead, the city argues that because a small percentage of the area’s properties are blighted, the city can condemn the entire area. Bob and Kelly believe that that this blight argument is bogus, and that the city is simply using “blight” as a pretext to hide the real intention of the taking—to give Old Dominion University more property so it can build more housing (not necessarily housing exclusively for students) and a profitable shopping center.