Using Your Property to Criticize Us for Taking Your Property? You’d Better Believe That’s Illegal
On Wednesday, lawyers from the Institute for Justice will argue before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Saint Louis on behalf of Jim Roos, whose anti–eminent domain mural has become familiar to most of us in the Saint Louis metro area.
Roos painted the mural to protest the city’s decision to use eminent domain to seize numerous properties from his low-income housing nonprofit organization, Sanctuary in the Ordinary. After Roos completed the mural in 2007, the city cited him for violating its sign code and ordered Roos to remove the mural. Roos refused, and fought the case in federal court on First Amendment grounds. Last March, a U.S. District Court ruled against Roos, remarkably claiming that the mural would be legal if it were devoid of political content, like a fleur-de-lis or a Cardinals logo. This turns the First Amendment on its head, because it was explicitly added to the Constitution with the intent of protecting political speech.
The case also illustrates the unity of property rights and civil rights. If the government can legally regulate away Roos’ most effective platform, it will have the same chilling effect on free speech as direct censorship. Similarly, freedom of religion is useless if zoning laws prevent groups from building places of worship; freedom from search and seizure only applies if your home is your castle; and freedom of the press will not get you very far if the government can block access to all the presses. Many people think of property rights and civil rights as fundamentally different things, but if the government places enough restrictions on how you can use your property, it must necessarily interfere with our fundamental political rights. Let us hope that the appeals court will understand this connection and allow Roos to speak his mind.