How Local Governments Are Chipping Away at the First Amendment

That Amendment is unequivocal when it states that Congress shall make no law. Lesser government powers can make as many as they like.


Paul Ryan got to speak at Christopher Newport University the other day. People who don't like Paul Ryan did not. 

Oh, they wanted to. The Feminist Alliance had hoped to hold a protest rally at the college in Newport News, Va. The Gay Straight Student Union also had hoped to say a word or two about why the Romney-Ryan ticket is wrong for America. But they didn't get the chance. CNU's rules require student groups to ask permission 10 business days in advance of any demonstration. Ryan's appearance was announced just one business day in advance.

Restrictions such as CNU's are often defended as neutral "time, place, and manner" rules designed to maintain order rather than impose silence. But often they are not neutral in effect—as a headline in the Hampton Roads Daily Press illustrates: "Paul Ryan Plays to Enthusiastic Crowd at CNU." The crowd might not have seemed so enthusiastic if the protest had been allowed. (The newspaper wrote a separate story about the protest denial.)

But then, if the protest had been allowed at CNU it might not have been seen anyway. The public university permits demonstrations only on its Great Lawn, and Ryan's event was being held at a concert hall elsewhere. CNU now says it will revise its policies. Yet many universities have restricted the First Amendment to such "free-speech zones." In doing so they have blithely ignored a point captured well by a bon mot from Barney Frank: "As we read the Constitution," he and some colleagues once wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft, "the United States is a free-speech zone."

Nice try, Barney. But tell that to Bob Wilson, the owner of Central Radio inNorfolk. The city is trying to seize Wilson's land—and that of several others—in one of those eminent-domain deals that have provoked a richly justified backlash across the country. Once it condemns the land, the city will hand it over to a foundation run by Old Dominion University, which will then turn it over to private developers. The city's housing authority is collecting a commission on the sales.

Wilson put up a sign on the side of his property protesting "eminent domain abuse." Well. Norfolk officials do not like to be sassed by people whose property they are confiscating. They threatened Wilson with fines of up to $1,000 a day for improper signage. A judge declined to issue an injunction, so down went the sign. Once again, ostensibly neutral laws effectively have silenced political speech.

Kim Houghton's sign was not the least bit political. But it, too, had to go. Houghton—the owner of an Arlington, Va., dog-grooming company—painted a mural on the side of her building. The mural, which depicts cartoon dogs cavorting, faces a doggie park. Arlington officials called it an advertisement and said it was bigger than the 60 square feet allowed by law. For some ungodly reason, commercial speech is less protected than other kinds. So Houghton must paint the mural over. As long as she paints flowers or ducks or, perhaps more fittingly, sheep—anything except dogs—Arlington will not object. 

Nor will Fairfax County object any longer, at least for now, about the sign outside the Church of the Good Shepherd. That  church recently replaced its old sign—the kind with letters you change by hand—with a new electronic one. Several weeks ago a zoning investigator with a lot of time on his hands sent the church a letter noting that the new sign had displayed three different messages within a 24-hour period—und zis ist verboten. Like a proper bureaucrat, the inspector resorted to the passive voice, in which things happen without human involvement: "It is noted"—not, mind you, "I noticed"—"that the screens changed more than twice in a twenty-four (24) hour period. This changeable copy LED sign is considered a prohibited sign."

The church sued, and the county backed down—sort of. It now insists merely that the sign's message change at a "reasonable interval," whatever that is. But that insistence is, itself, unreasonable—because the government has no good reason to limit the frequency of messages on the sign in the first place. 

Reasons, yes. There are always reasons. And because there are always reasons—and because the courts, which should act as checks on the other two branches of government, often act as their advocates instead—the First Amendment frequently gets short shrift. That Amendment is unequivocal when it states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Lesser government powers, apparently, can make as many as they like, so long as they come up with some kind of excuse.

It is noted that this is a flaming disgrace.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.