Today the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a major victory for First Amendment rights in Neighborhood Enterprises v. City of St. Louis. The decision strikes down a St. Louis sign ordinance that the City had tried to use to silence an anti-eminent-domain activist.
IJ filed the case on behalf of Jim Roos and his nonprofit housing ministry, which works to provide housing for low-income residents of south St. Louis. Roos was a critic of the City’s use of eminent domain for private development. So with the approval of his tenants he painted a large mural on the side of one of his buildings, facing the interstate.
If Roos’ mural had depicted a “[n]ational, state, religious, fraternal, professional and civic symbol[ ] or crest[ ],” it would have been perfectly legal. But because Roos’ mural contained a message of political protest, the City concluded that it was an illegal sign and ordered him to paint over it.
Roos wasn’t going to give in, so he joined with IJ to fight for his First Amendment rights. And today the 8th Circuit handed him a victory, holding emphatically that government isn’t allowed to restrict speech based on its message.
The 8th Circuit’s ruling is more than just a victory for Roos—it reaffirms how important it is for judges to look beyond government assertions to see what’s really going on. When the 8th Circuit looked at the evidence, it found there was nothing to support the City’s discriminatory treatment of Roos’ political speech. That sort of careful analysis—which judges should undertake in every constitutional case—is the essence of principled judicial engagement.
Equally vital to IJ’s success in this case was Roos’ willingness to stand up for his rights and challenge the government in court. This is not easy to do, as IJ President Chip Mellor recently noted:
The financial and emotional costs of litigation are enormous burdens for ordinary people to bear in the midst of trying to live their lives. The legal process is overwhelming, disruptive and intimidating for people experiencing it for the first time. . . .
Thankfully though, there are heroic people across the nation who refuse to simply lay down. Typically, they have no legal training and have not read the Constitution, but they know at a very profound level that the principles at the heart of the American Dream are real and vital to their future. And so they go to court in the firm belief that those principles are worth vindicating no matter how hard that may be.
Congratulations to Jim Roos on a well-deserved victory. Thanks to his commitment and IJ’s legal advocacy, residents not just of Missouri, but also of Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas and the Dakotas (the seven states comprising the 8th Circuit) can now enjoy greater protection for their First Amendment rights.
For more information about Roos’ case, visit IJ’s case page for St. Louis Free Speech.