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ST. LOUIS • A giant mural near Soulard protesting eminent domain is not art but an illegal sign, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Jim Roos, a vocal critic of the government practice of taking private land for public purpose, commissioned the mural on the side of a brick apartment building owned by a housing agency he runs. The sign's message — "End Eminent Domain Abuse" — is difficult to miss for drivers heading north toward downtown along Tucker Boulevard.

In 2007, the city ordered Roos to take the mural down, saying it violated city sign regulations. City code prohibits any sign larger than 30 square feet in that zoning district; Roos' mural is more than 360 square feet.

Roos sued to preserve his mural, arguing that it was not a sign but a piece of art offering a protected political statement.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Henry Edward Autrey rejected that argument, saying the mural — which features the addresses of two affiliated websites — is a "classic example" of the definition of a sign.

"The painting is outside and is used to advertise, identify, direct and attract attention to what petitioners believe is eminent domain abuse. It advertises online addresses for more information," Autrey wrote. "It attracts attention to the perceived eminent domain abuse."

Autrey also ruled that the city's sign ordinance is constitutional because it is "content neutral" — restrictions on signs are based on size and place, not subject.

The prohibition of Roos' mural, the judge wrote, "relates not to the content of petitioners' message but, rather, to the method by which they wish to convey it."

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Autrey found that the city's desire to maintain aesthetic appeal and not disrupt traffic was enough to allow for restrictions on the placement of signs.

Roos was represented by the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based libertarian advocacy group. Lawyers for the group seized on a clause in the city's sign code that exempts art, as well as flags and fraternal crests, from the restrictions on signs.

Autrey dismissed the relevance of those exemptions, saying they were "not the stuff of public debate."

"The court's decision gets it precisely backwards," Michael Bindas, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said in a statement. "The Supreme Court has made clear that political speech like Jim's gets the utmost constitutional protection precisely because it is the stuff of public debate."

The institute's statement indicated Roos would appeal the decision, likely keeping the mural up, at least temporarily.

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