With Proposed Sign Code Bill, St. Louis Aldermen Would Make Things Worse for All

John Kramer
John Kramer · June 26, 2012

Arlington, Va.—Tomorrow, the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen is scheduled to hold a hearing on a bill to “reform” the city’s sign code in response to a federal appeals court decision that vindicated the free speech rights of neighborhood activist Jim Roos. But rather than respecting the free speech rights of Roos and others, the aldermen instead appear to be making the sign code even more restrictive.

The proposed sign regulations contained in Board Bill 71 would require a government-issued permit for virtually every type of sign in the city, even flags.

If the bill passes, the citizens of St. Louis would have to request the government’s permission to put up the American flag or protest the government.

“Speech is not the problem. Government restriction of speech is the problem,” said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Roos in his free speech litigation. “Government cannot restrict political speech like Jim’s and it cannot require someone to get the government’s permission in order to protest government action.”

“It is unfortunate that the city wants to waste more time and taxpayer money litigating this case yet again,” said Bindas. “But if they want to go to the federal appeals court and lose for a third consecutive time rather than respect the right of citizens to protest abuse at the hands of government, the Institute for Justice is ready, willing and able to keep up that fight. We think, however, the taxpayers of St. Louis would be much better served by the city aldermen crafting a law that respects the public’s right to protest when government officials overstep their bounds.”

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 government’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 mural 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 sign regulations that the city had used to try to silence Jim because the regulations treated his political protest mural more restrictively than they treated speech regarding other subjects. For example, if Jim’s mural was of a governmental crest or flag, rather than a protest of governmental policy, it would not have required a permit and would have been perfectly permissible.

But rather than responding to the court’s ruling by affording Jim’s speech the same robust protections it offers to other types of speech, St. Louis plans to do just the opposite: It plans to restrict everyone’s speech the way it has tried to restrict Jim’s.

Were the proposed sign code changes not bad enough, the city, despite having lost in the 8th Circuit two times, is still insisting that Jim’s mural come down. Jim and the Institute for Justice are prepared to litigate the case yet again in order to ensure that Jim’s free speech rights—and those of all the citizens of St. Louis—are protected.

“The 8th Circuit held that the city unconstitutionally restricted speech and what’s the city’s proposed solution? Restrict even more speech under the changes they are now considering,” noted Bindas. “The city wants to trample the rights of everyone just to make an example of Jim Roos. If the city had spent as much time reforming the eminent domain laws as it has trying to silence Jim, Jim’s mural would have come down a long time ago.”

For more information about Roos’ case, visit:http://www.ij.org/1236.