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Federal appeals court backs man in fight over St. Louis eminent domain sign

Jim Roos was thrilled on Wednesday, July 13, 2011, when he heard a federal appeals court had sided with him in a dispute over his sign opposing eminent domain. This portrait was taken in front of the sign that afternoon. Robert Cohen

ST. LOUIS • A St. Louis man's two-story, anti-eminent domain mural will survive after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to review a lower court's ruling striking down part of St. Louis' sign ordinance.

A lawyer for Jim Roos, who put up the mural after losing 24 buildings to eminent domain, called it a "clear victory" for Roos and said that he was "very happy" that the lower court ruling would stand.

"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," said Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.

The case will now go back to U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey so that he can determine if the rest of the city's sign ordinance will survive or whether it must be entirely re-written, Bindas said.

Roos' commissioned the 360-square-foot mural in 2007 on the side of an apartment building at 1806 South 13th Street, near Soulard. It proclaims "End Eminent Domain Abuse" inside a red circle with a slash and is visible from Interstates 44 and 55.

The city ordered Roos to remove it, saying it violated city sign regulations, and Roos and two groups he founded sued.

In 2010, Autrey ruled that the city sign ordinance was content-neutral and therefore constitutional, but a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in July. The court said that a sign the same size as Roos' would not be regulated if it were a religious, fraternal or civil symbol. The city code used the content of a sign to determine if it was, in fact, a "sign," the ruling said.

Both sides appealed.

Earlier this year, Bindas said the institute and Roos appealed in hopes that the Supreme Court would "make clear, once an for all, that municipalities cannot regulate signs based on subject matter."

Appeals courts have split on the issue, he said.

"We had hoped that the Supreme Court would use this case to provide that uniform guidance on sign codes. . . to ensure that citizens across the country are free to speak."

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Robert Patrick is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.