8th Circuit Says St. Louis Must Tolerate Conspicuous Criticism
Last week a federal appeals court upheld a St. Louis landlord's First Amendment right to protest the city's eminent domain policies with a mural on the side of a building he owns. Jim Roos, who runs a nonprofit organization that provides afforable housing to low-income residents on the south side of St. Louis, commissioned the mural, which reads "End Eminent Domain Abuse," after 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 360-square-foot message, which is visible from two highways, saying it violated local sign regulations because it was too big and was located on the building's side instead of its front. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit said those rules—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 case cannot explain the exceptions to the rules.
"This is a victory not just for Jim Roos' right to protest eminent domain abuse, but for the right of every American to stand up to government whenever it abuses its power," says Michael Bindas, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represented Roos. "This case shows how interconnected our constitutional rights are—how vibrant free speech protections are essential to the preservation of our other rights and liberties, including property rights." The case also illustrates the reverse: Property rights are essential to exercising freedom of speech—a fact often overlooked by those who consider them inferior to "human rights."