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Free speech victory

“End Eminent Domain Abuse,” urges a 369-square-foot mural on the side of a St. Louis apartment building. Thanks to a federal appeals court, you can still see that message if you drive through the city on Interstate 44 or 55.

Jim Roos, who runs a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing to low-income tenants, commissioned the red, white, and black mural in 2007 after repeatedly clashing with the city over its definition of blight and its seizure of his property for use by private developers. The city ordered him to remove the mural, which includes the Web addresses of two groups that fight eminent domain abuse, saying his act of protest violated the local sign code.

In July the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit said the First Amendment trumps the sign code. The court concluded that the city’s regulations —which make exceptions for, among other things, “works of art” and “national, state, religious, fraternal, professional and civic symbols or crests”—are “impermissibly content-based” and fail “strict scrutiny,” since they are not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The court said the city’s claimed interests in traffic safety and aesthetics “have never been held to be compelling” in the context of speech restrictions and in any event cannot explain the exceptions to the rules.

The Institute for Justice, which represented Roos, argued that the sign code gave the city “broad discretion to regulate speech, potentially leading to arbitrary censorship,” in this case targeting criticism of the city itself. I.J. lawyer Michael Bindas called the 8th Circuit’s ruling a victory “for the right of every American to stand up to government whenever it abuses its power.” 

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