Stomping on Free Speech in Virginia

Local officials in Buchanan, and elsewhere, use regulations to shut their critics, and victims, up.


It's easy to understand why officials in Buchanan, Va., would be mad at Ken and Francine Bray, after everything the two of them have done.

The retired couple sank their life savings into a business. It took off, and breathed new life into Main Street, which leaders had been trying desperately to revive. They gave bored kids something to do: Their Glow-a-Rama featured a game room, indoor golf course, and a dance floor (all under black light, hence the name). It was a popular spot. By last January the place had hosted more than 200 dances, according to the Brays.

So naturally, the town shut them down. And when they put up signs in the windows of Glow-a-Rama to protest such treatment ("WHAT A DISGRACE!"), the town threatened to fine them into bankruptcy.

Buchanan's leaders say the Brays didn't follow the bureaucratic guidelines stipulating the proper procedure for new-use zoning allowances. And the signs have to come down because the Brays "submitted an application for a sign permit that lacked the necessary details," reports The Roanoke Times.

As Town Manager Mary Zirkle told the newspaper, "They did not provide the required, requested information. Therefore, no sign permit was issued when the business was opened."

Sam Gedge, a lawyer with the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, says Buchanan officials "promised that they would scour the code book for 'violations of ordinances that the Town can pursue' against the Brays. … It was little surprise, then, that the local planning commission recently dusted off the sign code and decided that the Brays' protest sign violated a battery of laws. To give just a couple of examples, the commission complains that the signs obscure architectural details such as arches, sills and transom windows and that they obstruct 'light or air.' But talk of transom windows serves only to distract from the obvious: Having shut down the Brays' business, Buchanan wants to shut them up too."

That might make Buchanan petty, but it doesn't make Buchanan unique.

Norfolk officials did the same thing to Bob Wilson, the owner of Central Radio, after the city tried to take his property through eminent domain. Norfolk wanted to sell Wilson's property to another private developer in a deal that would have netted the city's housing authority a 4 percent commission.

Norfolk ultimately lost that fight. During the course of it, though, Wilson put up a big sign on the side of his building to protest the attempted taking. Norfolk insisted he take it down: It was distracting to drivers, and bigger than the city's sign ordinance allowed, and so on. But those considerations applied only to private signs — not to the city's own flags, or religious emblems, or artworks.

The Fourth Circuit upheld Norfolk's selective enforcement of selective criteria in a 2-1 decision, but the Supreme Court recently vacated that decision and sent it back for review.

The same thing happened to Jim Roos when he tried to protest eminent domain exercised by St. Louis. Roos developed affordable housing for the poor; the city wanted a different private developer to have his property. Roos painted a big protest sign on one of his buildings. St. Louis made him apply for a sign permit — and then denied it. Roos fought (with the help of the Institute for Justice) andeventually won: The 8th Circuit ruled that parts of St. Louis' sign ordinance violated the First Amendment.

To many in local government, people like Roos and Wilson are troublemakers. By insisting they have a right to their own property, they get in the way of other people's grand designs — and impede the collection of more tax revenue. As if that weren't bad enough, when officials bring the full force of the government down on their heads, they have the temerity to object. Publicly.

Buchanan's Glow-a-Rama drama takes this imperious attitude to another level. Instead of a thriving business, Glow-a-Rama is now an empty shell. The Brays have run out of money and might have to file for bankruptcy, especially if Buchanan starts socking them with a $100-a-day fine for their signage.

What the town's leaders hope to achieve with all of this is a mystery. They certainly aren't putting out a welcome mat for anyone else who might want to start a business there. But they are proving that small burgs can be just as high-handed, autocratic, and indifferent to free-speech fundamentals as their big-city cousins. Why in the world they would want to, of course, is a different story.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond TImes-Dispatch.