Tuesday, May 30, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Business Owners Cited for Sign Lose Appeal

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - The owners of a Norfolk, Va., business that had to remove a sign protesting eminent domain said the Supreme Court is their next stop after the 4th Circuit ruled against them Tuesday.

Bob Wilson and Kelly Dickinson hung a 375-foot sign on the side of their business, Central Radio Company Inc., after the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority tried to condemn and take over their land under eminent domain, allegedly to give it to Old Dominion University.

The sign read: "50 years on this street. 78 years in Norfolk. 100 workers. Threatened by eminent domain."

After receiving a complaint about the sign from an employee of Old Dominion, the city of Norfolk cited Central Radio for an oversized sign and failing to get a sign certificate required by the city's sign code. Amid its eminent-domain litigation with other land owners, Central Radio sued for an injunction of Norfolk's sign code.

With the ordinance exempting any "flag or emblem of any nation, organization of nations, state, city, or any religious organization," or any "works of art which in no way identify or specifically relate to a product or service," from restrictions, and Central Radio said those exemptions were unconstitutional.

Central Radio also argued that the requirement of obtaining a sign certificate before installing a sign was a prior restraint on free speech, and that the city selectively applied its sign code in a discriminatory manner.

A federal judge granted the city summary judgment, declaring that the sign code was a constitutional exercise of the city's regulatory authority. The 4th Circuit affirmed, 2-1, Tuesday.

"The city enacted the sign code for several reasons, including to 'enhance and protect the physical appearance of all areas of the city,' and to 'reduce the distractions, obstructions and hazards to pedestrian and auto traffic caused by the excessive number, size or height, inappropriate types of illumination, indiscriminate placement or unsafe construction of signs,'" Judge Barbara Keenan wrote for the majority.

Those reasons constitute legitimate governmental reasons for restricting signs, and they were not content-restrictive, the court added.

"Upon our review, we agree with the District Court that the sign ordinance is a content-neutral restriction on speech that satisfies intermediate scrutiny, and we find no merit in the plaintiffs' other constitutional challenges," Keenan wrote.

Judge Roger Gregory dissented, saying the case involved key constitutional rights.

"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," Gregory wrote. "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."

Wilson and Dickinson's attorney blasted the majority for upholding a blatant speech violation.

"Today's ruling allows the government to play favorites with the First Amendment by arbitrarily deciding who gets to speak and what they get to say," Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said in a statemet. "We will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision so that all citizens can be free to speak out on the issues that matter to them."

The appellate court's decision is an example of a court rubber-stamping an abusive government action, "merely deferring to the government, instead of engaging with the real facts of a case," Bindas said.

Wilson confirmed that he and Dickinson will pursue the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"What the court has allowed is for the government to have an unfair advantage over its citizens anytime they try to speak out against it," Wilson said. "We will appeal to the Supreme Court because such a blatant violation of our basic constitutional rights cannot be allowed to stand."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.