Supreme Court Won’t Hear St. Louis Sign Case

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 21, 2012

Arlington, Va.—In an action that results in a free speech victory for a St. Louis, Mo., housing activist and citizens of seven Midwestern states—but that leaves lingering uncertainty for the free speech rights of citizens in other parts of the country—the U.S. Supreme Court today denied review of an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down substantial portions of the St. Louis sign code.

According to Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents Jim Roos, whose conflict with St. Louis over eminent domain sparked the free speech fight, “By declining review, the Supreme Court let stand an 8th Circuit opinion that strongly protects the free speech rights of citizens of the states in that circuit: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Unfortunately, citizens in some other federal circuits do not enjoy the same strong protections that Jim’s case secured.”

“We hoped the Supreme Court would use this opportunity to provide uniform guidance onsign codes nationwide, so that the free speech rights of all citizens would be fully protected once and for all,” Bindas said. “Unfortunately, that won’t happen with this case, but the Institute for Justice will continue its fight to ensure that all Americans are free to speak out on the issues that matter to them.”

Roos’ case arose after the city of St. Louis used eminent domain to acquire 24 buildings owned by Sanctuary in the Ordinary or managed by Neighborhood Enterprises, the nonprofit, low-income housing provider and self-supporting housing ministry that Roos founded to house the poor. The city took the buildings for private development.

Fed up with the city’s disregard for property rights, Roos exercised his free speech rights to protest the city’s eminent domain policies. He painted a large protest mural on the side of yet another Sanctuary-owned building threatened with eminent domain, calling for an end to eminent domain abuse. The city promptly cited Roos for displaying an “illegal sign” and told him a permit was required. But when Roos applied for a permit, the city refused to issue one.

Roos refused to remove his protest and joined with the Institute for Justice to fight for his First Amendment rights. In July 2011, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Roos’ favor, holding emphatically that government is not allowed to restrict speech based on its subject or message. The court struck down the St. Louis sign regulations that the city had tried to use to silence this anti-eminent-domain activist.

The city sought U.S. Supreme Court review of the appeals court’s decision. Even though Roos had won in the appeals court, he and IJ agreed with the city’s request that the Supreme Court review the case so that the Court could once and for all provide clear judicial guidance to municipalities nationwide that seek to draft constitutional sign ordinances.

“Where you live should not dictate how much legal protection your speech receives,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “Although Jim Roos and his fellow citizens in the 8th Circuit are now protected, we will not rest until it is clear that no municipality may restrict speech because of disagreement with the subject or message it conveys.”

For more information about Roos’ case, visit: