GUEST OPINION:St. Louis case: When is a sign free speech?

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First Amendment Center
In declining to review a ruling that invalidated a St. Louis sign ordinance, the U.S. Supreme Court has let stand an opinion that both supports freedom of speech and reinforces the core values of the First Amendment.

In 2007, Jim Roos had a 360-ft.-square mural posted on the side of an apartment building.

Its message: “End eminent domain abuse.”

The city of St. Louis said the sign was too large and ordered Roos to take it down, leading to a court battle.

There are restrictions on the size and location of signs in every city in America.

Courts have ruled that signs can be regulated for traffic, safety and aesthetic reasons. But common to all those regulations is that they must be content neutral.

In other words, the rules have to apply no matter what the message is; government can’t play favorites with points of view.

Last July, a panel of three judges of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that St. Louis’ regulation was not content-neutral. According to stltoday.com, the law exempted artwork, flags and fraternal crests, meaning the city would have to assess the content of the sign in order to decide appropriate steps. That violates the First Amendment.

On the face of it, the circumstances are fairly routine.

The question of content neutrality always looms large in sign regulation cases. Still, there’s something particularly satisfying about this outcome.

Roos was protesting because the government had already confiscated 24 of his buildings under eminent domain.

Eminent domain allows government to seize property (with compensation to the property owner) in pursuit of a greater public project or good.

If you’re someone who has lost 24 properties, you would understandably be irritated and want to speak out about it.

That, of course, is at the heart of the First Amendment. Citizens have a right to criticize their government and call for reforms.

In this case, in addition to seizing his property, the government was limiting Roos’ criticism of its actions.

The sign was big — and so was his point.

Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer/First Amendment Center. Previously, Paulson served as editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today and USATODAY.com