Arlington, Va—Can a government agency be held accountable for violating First Amendment rights even if—or especially if—the agency had no business regulating speech in the first place?
That will be the issue before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis this Wednesday when it hears the case of 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. A three-judge panel will hear the case Wednesday, June 11, at 9:00 a.m. at the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse, 111 S. 10th Street, Northeast Courtroom, 27th Floor, in St. Louis.
Jim is an advocate for reform of Missouri’s eminent domain laws and speaks from experience, having 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.
He had a large mural protesting eminent domain abuse painted on his building at 1806-08 S. 13th Street, in the Bohemian Hill neighborhood of St. Louis—target of a redevelopment ordinance authorizing eminent domain to make way 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 Bohemian Hill—inserted itself into the permitting process to deny permission for Jim’s sign.
However, when Jim filed a lawsuit challenging the LCRA’s “denial” of his permit, the agency bizarrely claimed that it could not be held accountable for infringing on Jim’s First Amendment rights because the Missouri Legislature never gave it any authority to regulate signs. A federal district court in St. Louis agreed and dismissed the case. Represented by the Institute for Justice, Jim is appealing that decision to the 8th Circuit.
“The LCRA’s attempt at censorship is more outrageous, not less, because the agency does not have any authority to regulate signs,” said Bill Maurer, an IJ attorney. “It shows how far governments will go to censor speech they do not like. The LCRA should not be let off the hook for its attempt to shut down a unique and powerful protest of its own actions.”
“The LCRA went out of its way to oppose this mural because they were upset with the message,” said Jim Roos. “We hope that the court will agree that the LCRA should be held accountable for their efforts to squelch speech about the abuse of eminent domain in St. Louis.”
Jim’s challenge to the city of St. Louis’s denial of his permit continues at the federal district court. A win at the 8th Circuit will require the district court to consider the merits of Jim’s challenge to the LCRA’s actions as well.