Signs of Abuse in St. Louis:

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 15, 2007

Arlington, Va—In a double blow to free speech and property rights, the city of St. Louis is not only threatening to take an entire neighborhood for private development—it wants to censor a powerful and highly visible mural protesting the city’s eminent domain abuse and building support for reform.

The Institute for Justice filed papers in federal court yesterday defending the First Amendment right to protest government abuse on behalf of Jim Roos, whose striking mural—painted on a building threatened by eminent domain abuse and visible from the heavily traveled Interstates 44 and 55—brought out the government censors. IJ, a public interest law firm that defends First Amendment freedoms and property rights nationwide, also defended homeowners in the infamous Kelo eminent domain case.

Fed up with seeing the affordable housing he owns and manages through Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc., and the non-profit Sanctuary in the Ordinary face condemnation for private development, Jim fought back. He helped found the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition and has been an advocate for reform of Missouri’s eminent domain laws.

And he had a large mural painted on his building at 1806-08 S. 13th Street, in the Bohemian Hill neighborhood, target of a redevelopment ordinance authorizing eminent domain to make way for private development. Earlier this year, the city’s Land Clearing for Redevelopment Authority started the process of acquiring property in the neighborhood.

After the mural appeared in March, St. Louis bureaucrats told Jim he must apply for a permit. Then they denied his application. St. Louis insists the mural must be taken down as a violation of local “sign codes.”

“St. Louis’ censorship is a case study in how so-called ‘sign codes’ give local bureaucrats across the country license to stifle speech,” said Bill Maurer, executive director of the IJ Washington Chapter. “When the government has the ability to regulate speech, it also has the power to censor speech it does not like.”

Indeed, one of the two city agencies involved in denying Jim a permit for his mural is the LCRA—the same agency with eminent domain power over Bohemian Hill and the agency whose actions he is protesting.

Sign codes nationwide give overreaching local bureaucrats license to censor speech. Glendale, Ohio, threatened Chris Pagan with fines and jail time for putting a “for sale” sign on his car while it was parked on the street in front of his home. Redmond, Wash., clamped down on bagel shop owner Dennis Ballen because he hired someone to carry a sign pointing customers to his out-of-the way location.

“Jim’s mural is a powerful, unique and low-cost protest to the city of St. Louis’ repeated abuse of eminent domain,” said Nick Dranias, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter. “The city wants to take away the most effective means he has of protesting the city’s own abuse and raising awareness of the need for statewide eminent domain reform.”

“The mural speaks volumes about peoples’anger overeminent domain abuse,” said Jim Roos. “Peoplearedelighted that someone hasstood up tothe abuse.One supporter said we could chain him to the building, if necessary,to block the city from removing the mural. Another supporter insisted on donating his time and materials to light the mural at night.”

For Jim and other Missourians, the ability to protect their property is directly linked to their freedom to speak. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London gave the green light to eminent domain for private development, Missouri was one of the worst states for eminent domain abuse. Indeed, this is the third time property Jim owns or manages has faced the wrecking ball for private development. Relatively toothless reform after Kelo has left Missouri property owners without much protection from the courts or the Legislature.

As a result, the best avenue left for property owners to protect what is rightfully theirs is protest: rallying support to convince their local government to stop the abuse. Or they must take the issue of eminent domain abuse directly to the voters, as MEDAC and other reform advocates are doing by gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that will provide real protection for home and small business owners.

Jim’s sign is a call to action for fellow citizens. But St. Louis wants to shut that down, too.

“We are fighting to vindicate the First Amendment right to protest government abuse and to stop petty censorship through sign codes,” concluded Maurer. “If the First Amendment means anything, it must mean that citizens like Jim Roos have the right to effectively protest government abuse and build support for meaningful reform—without having to get government approval.”

Jim and attorney John Randall of University Park, Mo., first challenged the city’s censorship in August in state court, and the case was then moved to federal court. On November 14, IJ filed an amended complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc. v. City of St. Louis. John Randall serves as IJ’s local counsel in the case.