Norfolk Tries to Impose Radio Silence

Progressives do not get worked up about property rights the way conservatives do. This is a mistake—as a case out of Norfolk shows.

As a general rule, progressives do not get worked up about property rights the way conservatives do. This is a mistake—as a case out of Norfolk shows.

To the progressive eye property is bound up with materialism and wealth and greed and other yucky things. But property is also bound up with some things progressives hold dear. And even progressives were outraged when, in its 2005 Kelo decision, the Supreme Court said governments could take property from the poor and give to the rich.

That is what has been happening in Norfolk, where the city’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority has been using eminent domain to take dozens of pieces of private property for resale to a foundation run by Old Dominion University. The housing authority has been collecting commissions on the sales; the foundation has then been turning the property over to developers for their use as part of a swanky new University Village.

Among those properties is the building that houses Central Radio, whose story was detailed here back in May, 2010. Some years ago Norfolk offered to buy the property for a lowball price of $700,000 (more than a decade before, a developer had offered more than $1 million). Central Radio’s president, Bob Wilson, turned the city down. So the city slapped a spurious designation of “blighted” on the property and condemned it.

Norfolk couldn’t get away with that today. Virginia’s General Assembly has sharply curtailed such abusive use of eminent domain, precisely because of cases such as this one and others like it. Roanoke, for instance, seized a property it wanted to give to Carillion Clinic. Carillion later said it didn’t want the property; Roanoke went ahead and took it anyway.

But the legislature’s changes to eminent-domain law included a grandfather clause, allowing Norfolk to proceed. Wilson is naturally cheesed off. He has vented his frustration by putting up on the side of his building a protest banner. (“50 years on this street,” it reads. “78 years in Norfolk. 100 workers. Threatened by eminent domain.” The words “eminent domain abuse” are surrounded by a red circle with a slash through it.)

But Norfolk officials apparently feel it is not enough to take away Wilson’s property. They also are trying to take away his right to free speech, by insisting that his banner violates the city’s sign ordinance.

At 41 pages and more than 11,0000 words, that ordinance is a bureaucrat’s dream come true. Norfolk cites it to say Wilson can put up a sign no larger than 60 square feet. That would render it unreadable even from much smaller distances than those at which the current sign, at 375 square feet, is legible.

Such petty Bonapartism is not unique. After the Kelo case the city of Freeport, Texas, tried to take a family shrimping business on behalf of a Dallas developer, H. Walker Royall. Journalist Carla Main wrote about the ensuing fight in her book, Bulldozed. Royall didn’t care for the coverage. So he sued both Carla Main and her publisher. He also sued a Galveston newspaper that reviewed the book. And the book reviewer. And Richard Epstein, a well-known law professor who gave the book a dust-jacket blurb. Royall lost on all counts.

In an even more apposite case, the city of St. Louis went after a nonprofit landlord, Jim Roos, who – like Central Radio – objected when the city exploited eminent domain to condemn properties he used to house the poor. Roos painted a large “End Eminent Domain Abuse” mural on the side of one of the buildings. The city told him he needed a permit for the mural. So he applied for one – and the city turned him down. Roos sued on First Amendment grounds. Incredibly, a federal judge ruled that (as Reason magazine put it) “Mural Protesting Government Policies Isn’t Free Speech.” The Eighth circuit wisely overruled that decision.

The Institute for Justice, which is headquartered in Arlington, represented Roos. It is now representing Wilson and Central Radio. IJ will argue that Norfolk’s code unconstitutionally forbids Wilson from using the most effective means to express his objections. It will also argue, as it did in St. Louis, that the city is engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. Of that there can be little doubt.

And this is why progressives should care. All of these cases started out as disputes over property rights. Each of them is also a tale of David and Goliath, in which government and deep-pocketed development interests double-team the little guy.

And all three of them ended up as arguments over free expression. In St. Louis and Norfolk, governments have sought to silence individuals who were speaking out not in the public square, but in the last refuge there is for the exercise of individual rights: private property.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.

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  • SIV||

    Since when do progressives give a shit about free expression? Much less property rights.

  • sarcasmic||

    They care when they agree with what is being expressed, otherwise they want it banned.

  • o3||

    so kramer must suffer sunburn & sleep deprivation fm the intense fried chicken sign across the street?...or progressives dont support free speech? >that connection is really, REALLY free speech...really

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Oh, come the fuck on, stOOOpid... which Team wants government-parceled speech? Which Team wants to force radio stations to give exact amounts of equal time - by force - to "all" points of view? (Impossible, by the way, but I digress.)

    That said... this case be bullshit, and should not be happening at all. But, then again... which Team takes a dim view of property rights [until it's THEIR property being threatened]?

    Fugly as Team Red may be, so be Team Blue.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Hint:

    It's the same Team that thinks the Fairness Doctrine was actually a good thing, and considers "the public airways" as something other than a goddamn pussy-boy phrase.

  • Ramjet||

    Why are you stealing my property? Because fuck you, that's why. I hate eminent domain abuse.

  • D.A. Ridgely||

    I, for one, never thought I'd live to see the day when Norfolk, Old Dominion University and swanky appeared in the same paragraph.

    P.S. -- "11,0000"?

  • Chloe||

    They have been trying to clean up their image for a few years now. I used to live at the Districts, which are "swanky" private dorms for ODU/EVMS students. Left after someone got shot in the face outside my window.

  • Raston Bot||

    Glad to see the guy in Norfolk got the circle/slash right. That double negative in St. Louis grated on my OCD.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Norfolk city government is corrupt. That they abuse eminent domain should come as a surprise to no one. I'm a native of the area.

  • Incredulous||

    ALL government is corrupt. Government equals power and power corrupts. That's why government should be limited.

  • Raston Bot||

    So the proposed amendment on Virginia's ballot will expand "public use" to include an expanded tax base?

    That doesn't sound like bolstering.

  • fresno dan||

    Oy - you trailer trash tea bagger Federalist paper afficianados - its OK when its done to help MEMBERS of the ACADEMY - because they are are betters.
    geez...

  • JoshSN||

    Laws on "blight" are pretty clear, and usually over-expansive.

    Those were the laws I'd argue with. In the Kelo case, if memory serves, blight included not having central air conditioning.

  • ||

    The condo property I live on is looking to redevelop. My main worry is that some developer will work in collusion with the county government (Fairfax County, VA) to get the property declared "blighted" or "condemned" for some trumped-up reason and take it over without having to a) acceded to the wishes of the condo community already there and b) compete with other developers for the property.

    Basically, the developer that can get to the county government first, wins.

  • Zair||

    I'm curious why I've never read a case of eminent domain abuse where the owner doesn't just stand there with a shotgun, and say "You want my land, come and take it!"

    I'm sure most people just want to get on with their lives even if the government robs them blind and evicts them, but surely someone somewhere had the balls to stand up at some point in the past?

  • SIV||

    Happens quite regularly in zoning and code enforcement cases.

    Carl Drega

    Cars and Parts magazine has a regular column on junkyard owners violently resisting code enforcement.
    I routinely vote for one in my local elections.

  • purple_persuader||

    Kinda hard to maintain a constant vigil. Now a few thousand people marching on townhall would be a little better.

  • Incredulous||

    I hate the term "progressive." It's been completely corrupted and has come to represent the opposite of its original meaning. It's used to describe people that are regressive and advocate for government stomping on liberty. It's also used to describe a tax code which is regressive since it also stomps on liberty by allowing the government to steal from one person and give to another. This does not take us "forward" or advance civilization - it takes us backward towards tyranny and oppression. A truly "progressive" person and tax code would favor progress towards individual liberty - economic and otherwise.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    I picture a boot stamping on the face of Ed Schultz, but only long enough to render him comatose. "Forever" is too long.

    And - just to be fair - that same boot stamping on the face of Rush Limbaugh, for the same duration and resulting level of consciousness.

    For the children, yo.

  • joy||

    It will also argue, as it did in St. Louis, http://www.riemeninnl.com/riem-armani-c-4.html that the city is engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. Of that there can be little doubt.

  • Shane Warne||

    Norfolk Tries to Impose Radio Silence is a good post. I just pleased to read about it. Really I was looking forward to read about it. Thanks for this allocation. :)
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