St. Louis’s definition of ‘sign’ unconstitutionally content-based

by Victoria Heldt and Gary Taylor

Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc.; Sanctuary in the Ordinary; Jim Roos v. City of St. Louis; St. Louis Board of Adjustment
(Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, July 13, 2011)

Neighborhood Enterprises manages the properties of Sanctuary in the Ordinary (SITO), a non-profit organization working with rental properties in St. Louis.  Jim Roos, the founder of both organizations, is involved in the Missouri Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition (MEDAC).  Roos and MEDAC commissioned a sign/mural to be placed on the side of a SITO-owned building.  The sign mural/ was approximately 363 square feet in area and was visible from Interstates 44 and 55.  It read “End Eminent Domain Abuse” inside a red circle with a slash through it.  The sign was similar to the design MEDAC uses in other literature [NOTE: The city of St. Louis had previously condemned 24 buildings owned either by SITO or Neighborhood Enterprises for a private development project] .

In April 2007, the City’s Division of Building and Inspection issued a citation for an “illegal sign” and declared that a permit was required for the sign to be in compliance.  SITO applied and was denied the permit because the sign was painted on a building that was zoned “D” or “Multiple Family Dwelling,” where signs are limited to a maximum 30 square feet, and also because the wall face did not have street frontage and therefore was not allowed to have signage.  SITO appealed to the Board of Adjustment and countered that the sign was, in fact, a “work of art” not required to meet the zoning code’s definition of “sign.” The City justified the requirements in its Zoning Code on concerns for traffic safety and aesthetics.  The Board upheld the zoning administrator’s denial on July 2007.  SITO appealed.

In district court SITO argued, among other things, that the zoning regulations were invalid and unconstitutional pursuant to the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and as such the Board’s decision should be reversed. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the City and the Board, finding the zoning regulations were not in violation of the U.S. Constitution and that the Board’s decision was not arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, unlawful or in excess of the Board’s jurisdiction.  SITO appealed this decision to the 8th Circuit.

On appeal, the 8th Circuit first looked to the issue of standing.  The City and Board argued that SITO only has standing to challenge the provisions within the Zoning Code that were actually applied to the decision to deny the sign permit.  It claimed that SITO could not “show a causal connection between its purported injury and the provisions of the zoning code not applied to it.”  The Court found that SITO had standing to challenge the clauses that were cited in the denial of the permit.  Additionally, it could challenge the sections of the Code that defined a sign and the scope of signs allowed.

SITO’s free speech claim was grounded in the belief that the sign regulations were “riddled with content-based exemptions and restrictions.”  Furthermore, traffic safety and aesthetics were not previously considered “compelling” interests of the government.  The Court found that the Code’s definition of a sign was unconstitutionally content-based because “the message conveyed determines whether the speech is subject to the restriction.”  If a sign/mural of the exact same dimensions and at the same location contained a symbol or crest, or if it were a national, state, religious, fraternal, professional or civic symbol it would not be subject to the city’s regulation.  The Court also found that while the regulations may generally promote aesthetics and traffic safety, the city failed to show how the distinctions between exempt and non-exempt signs found in the code further those goals. The court further held that the code’s exemptions are not narrowly tailored to accomplish goals of traffic safety or aesthetics which, “while significant, have never been held to be ‘compelling’ government interests.

The Court determined the regulation’s definition of a sign to be a violation of the First Amendment but could not rule on whether those clauses could be effectively separated from the Code since the district court never addressed the issue.  It reversed the decision and remanded the case in order for the district court to rule on that matter.

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