John Kerr is a communications fellow with the Institute for Justice.
First they tried to seize his property. Then they tried to shut him up about it.
But Bob Wilson refused to be a quiet victim of government injustice. And his ordeal in Norfolk represents a confluence of issues involving free speech and property rights, one that offers the Supreme Court an opening to defend some of our nation’s most cherished founding principles.
Wilson owns Central Radio Co., a communications and engineering firm that has been part of Norfolk’s landscape since 1934. But that commitment to the community didn’t stop the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority from threatening to seize his land and building in 2010 to turn them over to Old Dominion University.
While many of the targeted property owners in the area agreed to sell, Wilson and a handful of others resisted. The holdouts faced an uphill struggle, given the Supreme Court’s infamous 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, which adopted an expansive interpretation of the government’s power to take private property by eminent domain.
In March 2012, with the specter of condemnation taking an emotional and financial toll on his business, his workers and their families, Wilson vented his frustration by hanging on the side of his building a large banner that read: “50 years on this street. 78 years in Norfolk. 100 workers. Threatened by eminent domain!”
Soon, he was forced to defend his liberties on a second front.
Acting on a complaint from an employee of Old Dominion, Norfolk’s zoning enforcement staff forced Wilson to remove the banner, citing him for violating the municipal sign code and for failing to get permission from the city before hanging the sign.
Not content with running roughshod over Wilson’s property rights, Norfolk officials sought to trample his First Amendment right to speak out about it.
In May 2012, the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm working on behalf of Wilson, filed suit in federal court. We argued that the sign code violated the Constitution because it exempted other types of messages of the same magnitude, such as certain flags, emblems or works of art. In addition, we asserted that requiring someone to receive municipal approval before displaying a sign amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.
As the banner issue worked its way through the judiciary, Wilson received welcome news in September 2013, when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority did not have the right to seize the properties it was targeting. The decision effectively killed the city’s efforts to take out Central Radio.
The celebration was tempered, however, in January when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld Norfolk’s sign code. In a 2-to-1 decision, the judges ruled that, among other things, the code was sufficiently content-neutral and the city hadn’t engaged in a “pattern of unlawful favoritism” while enforcing the statute.
The majority’s reasoning triggered a robust dissent from Judge Roger Gregory: “This case implicates some of the most important values at the heart of our democracy: political speech challenging the government’s seizure of private property — exactly the kind of taking that our Fifth Amendment protects against. If a citizen cannot speak out against the king taking her land, I fear we abandon a core protection of our Constitution’s First Amendment.”
Indeed, the notion that the city’s move to banish the sign had nothing to do with its content doesn’t pass the smell test.
As Post blogger Radley Balko noted in April, “Imagine if another building a few miles down the road put up a banner celebrating the city’s wise and prudent development policies. Does anyone honestly think the owner of that property would need to go to court to keep his banner?”
Wilson’s fight highlights how apathy regarding the erosion of even a single constitutional protection can lead to the eventual atrophy of others. Too often, government officials who should be defending and securing our rights instead move to encroach and diminish them under the guise of expedience.
Bob Wilson has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 4th Circuit’s ruling. Let’s hope the justices acknowledge the importance of hearing his appeal.