Arlington, Va.—For seven years, Jim Roos has fought a legal battle with the city of St. Louis for the right to protest the government’s eminent domain policies. Today, a federal trial court provided him with yet another victory in that effort.
Jim’s saga began when St. Louis and its agencies began using eminent domain to take properties owned by Sanctuary in the Ordinary, Jim’s non-profit, low-income housing organization, or managed by Neighborhood Enterprises, a related housing ministry. All told, the city took 24 properties owned or managed by Sanctuary or Neighborhood Enterprises.
Fed up with the city’s actions, in March 2007, Jim had a powerful, highly visible mural painted on the side of one of Sanctuary’s buildings that the city was threatening to take through eminent domain. The mural read, “End Eminent Domain Abuse.” But just weeks after the mural was completed, the city cited Jim for violating the city’s sign code.
Represented by the Institute for Justice, Jim sued, alleging the government’s actions violated the First Amendment. Since then, he has twice fought, and won, at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In its latest decision, the appellate court ruled that certain provisions of the sign code in effect when Jim first brought his suit were unconstitutional. The circuit court returned the issues of whether those provisions could be severed from the remainder of the sign code to the lower, trial court. The trial court initially ruled in favor of the city; Jim and IJ asked the court to reconsider that decision.
Today, the trial court vacated its earlier decision and concluded that the provisions of the city’s old sign code that the 8th Circuit concluded were unconstitutional could not be severed from the remainder of the code, meaning that the entirety of the city’s old code was unconstitutional. Jim had also sought $1.00 in nominal damages from the city in order to demonstrate that the government had violated his rights. The trial court’s decision today also granted that request.
“I am glad that the courts have recognized that we have the right to protest governmental policies that hurt the people our ministry is trying to help,” said Roos. “The city of St. Louis should also recognize that all the residents of this city have the right to have our voices heard when the government enacts harmful policies.”
The question remaining before the court is whether Jim will be able to keep his mural, notwithstanding a newly enacted 2012 sign code, under a doctrine called “vested rights.” The court has asked the city to provide additional briefing on the issue.
“For Americans of limited means, signs are often the most important, if not the only, means of effective public protest,” said William Maurer, an attorney with IJ and the lead attorney on Roos’ case. “Today’s decision recognizes that the city’s sign code was so pervasively unconstitutional that no part of it could be enforced. It is unfortunate, however, that any American should have to litigate their right to protest for seven years in order to get the government to learn that lesson.”
“We are confident that the court will ultimately conclude that Jim has a vested right in his mural and that it can remain for so long as he chooses to have it,” said IJ Senior Attorney Michael Bindas. “As the court recognized today, the sign code provisions the city applied to the mural when it was put up back in 2007 were unconstitutional. The mural was therefore perfectly permissible, and no new city code can change that fact.”
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. For more information on Roos’ case, please visit: https://ij.org/neighborhood-enterprises-inc-v-city-of-st-louis.