Critics of eminent domain are now being denied their basic right to freedom of speech — as well as their property rights — in some American cities.
The most outrageous case occurred in Hawaii, where Honolulu city workers used a giant front-end loader to remove homemade signs Choon James had placed on her property.
One of the signs read “Eminent Domain Abuse Who’s Next?” while another directed citizens to a YouTube video explaining her case. James put up the signs to protest the city’s plans to seize her property to use as a location for a new fire station.
On Oct. 18, 2013, city workers removed the signs using a loader and dump truck. The workers were backed up by four police cars and several police officers.
“The city’s actions show a shameful lack of respect for the First and Fourth Amendments,” Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice wrote in a recent Forbes article. The Institute is representing James in her battle with the city.
This was the second time the city had removed such signs from James’ property, Sibilla said. Three similar signs were removed by city workers in May. City officials contend that the signs violate a municipal ordinance regulating signs. James is alleging that other political signs are allowed to stay up in the same area. The city also says James is trespassing on her own property.
Mural Targeted In St. Louis
Honolulu isn’t the only city where officials have tried to use sign ordinances to silence a critic of eminent domain. St. Louis resident Jim Roos was ordered to remove a giant mural that read “End Eminent Domain Abuse” from a building he owned.
Roos commissioned the 360-foot mural after the city of St. Louis seized 24 properties he owned. The mural on the side of an apartment building was clearly visible from two interstate roads.
On July 13, 2011, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Roos’ sign was free speech and protected by the First Amendment. The US Supreme Court later declined to hear the case.
“By declining review, the Supreme Court let stand a very strong 8th Circuit opinion that provides strong free speech protection, not only for Jim Roos but all citizens in the 8th Circuit,” Roos’ attorney, Michael Bindas of the Institute for Justice, told The St. Louis Post Dispatch.
The Institute is one of a number of groups that have alleged such codes have been used to restrict free speech in some communities. Hawaii is covered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, so Roos’ case has little impact on James’ case.
Courts On Side of Free Speech
At least one other outrageous case of city officials trying to trample eminent domain opponents’ free speech has come to light.
In Norfolk, Virginia, Bob Wilson was threatened with a $1,000-a-day fine if he didn’t take down a banner attacking eminent domain. Wilson put up the sign after the city of Norfolk and Old Dominion University tried to seize his family’s business and property to use as a site for a shopping mall.
The banner read: “50 years on this street. 78 years in Norfolk. 100 workers threatened by eminent domain!!” It also contained an American flag and a no eminent domain logo similar to the one Roos’ put up in St. Louis.
The city’s action was prompted by an official at Old Dominion, which hoped to profit from the mall scheme, The Washington Times reported. Ironically, the mall development scheme is now dead because Virginia voters amended their state’s constitution to ban eminent domain for profit. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the city’s actions violated the state law.
Wilson’s free speech case is still pending in the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.