Small business owners in Norfolk, Va., claimed victory for free speech after the city failed to stop them from displaying a banner protesting the government power of eminent domain.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided last week that Norfolk government officials infringed on the First Amendment rights of the owners of Central Radio Co. by ordering them to cover up a sign objecting to the city’s attempt to take the company’s property.
The appeals judges concluded that the city’s sign ordinance was unlawfully content-based and stood in violation of the Constitution. The ruling ended a legal fight of nearly four years between the city and Central Radio.
The legal troubles of the business began after Norfolk’s land developer attempted to seize its building through eminent domain, which enables the government to take private property for public use as long as it provides just compensation.
Bob Wilson, one of the owners of Central Radio, told The Daily Signal he was compelled to protest Norfolk’s property grab after losing an initial attempt in trial court to keep his building:
Out of frustration I decided it was time to let the people of Norfolk, the city of Norfolk, and the state for that matter, know what was going on. The simplest way I knew how to do that was to hang up a sign.
Founded in 1934, Central Radio installs, maintains, repairs, and overhauls marine and industrial electrical or electronic equipment.
Wilson and Kelly Dickinson, Central Radio’s vice president, hung a big banner on the side of their building in May 2012. It reads: “50 years on this street. 78 years in Norfolk. 100 workers. Threatened by eminent domain!”
Soon after, Norfolk officials ordered Wilson and Dickinson to take down the banner, citing them for violating the sign ordinance.
Wilson said the city successfully forced them to cover up the banner after threatening Central Radio with a $1,000 fine each day the owners left the sign up.
“It was pretty obvious to almost everybody that the city was attempting to stifle our speech by not letting us speak out, not letting us protest and not letting us get the message out to the general public about what was actually happening,” Wilson said.
Although the Virginia Supreme Court ultimately decided Norfolk could not seize Central Radio’s building, the owners had become entangled in a separate free speech lawsuit.
The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice backed the owners of Central Radio Co., arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court made clear the government cannot legally discriminate against subject matter or viewpoints when regulating signs.
Erica Smith, an Institute for Justice lawyer who represented Central Radio, told The Daily Signal:
A lot of these sign codes are atrocious and they are hurting everyday people, ranging from business owners who just want to be able to advertise their products to people who have serious grievances with the political system and are not able to fully express themselves because of these burdensome sign codes.
The 4th Circuit Court initially ruled against Central Radio. But last June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a similar case that the First Amendment’s free speech protections do not allow discrimination against certain signs.
In light of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the justices vacated and remanded the lower court’s decision, ordering the 4th Circuit Court to reconsider.
“They basically said to the 4th Circuit, ‘You did this wrong; do it again,’” Smith told The Daily Signal.
After giving the case a second look, the 4th Circuit judges overturned their initial decision, deciding last week that Norfolk’s sign ordinance did in fact violate the Constitution.
“The First Amendment gives us the right to protest—in fact, we believe that it’s every citizen’s duty to protest when they think that their government has done something wrong,” Central Radio’s Wilson said. “If citizens were not allowed to protest their government, then we would turn back into a monarchy in no time at all.”
Hundreds of local sign ordinances studied by Institute for Justice attorneys are unconstitutional, Smith said. The court decision should serve as a “wake-up call” to cities across the United States that officials must reform their sign codes so they aren’t violating free speech rights, she said.
“The 4th Circuit issued a wonderful opinion, and that opinion will help protect speech across the country now and hopefully for decades to come,” Smith said.