ST. LOUIS (CN) – The 8th Circuit struck down a St. Louis ban against demonstrations that impede street and pedestrian traffic, siding with a Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist who was arrested under the law.
William Stahl was arrested along with a fellow protester as they carried a sign that said “911 was an inside job,” while standing on the Park Avenue Overpass in St. Louis in February 2009.
Both men belong to the “9/11 Questions Group,” which refutes the official version of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
After St. Louis police received a complaint about the “offensive sign,” the men were arrested for violation of an ordinance that states: “No person shall sell or offer for sale any goods or merchandise, display any sign or pictures, participate in or conduct an exhibition or demonstration, talk, sing or play music on any street or abutting premises, or alley in consequences of which there is such a gathering of persons or stopping of vehicles as to impede either pedestrians or vehicular traffic.”
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal complaint, Stahl said the overbroad law lent itself to arbitrary enforcement.
A federal judge sided with the city at summary judgment, finding the ordinance to be a content-neutral time, place and manner restriction.
But a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit reversed Monday, finding the ordinance to be unconstitutional on its face because its does not provide fair notice of what conduct is prohibited and it excessively chills protected speech.
“So long as the ordinance is clear and provides fair notice as to what conduct is deemed likely to cause a traffic problem, these regulations do not offend due process,” Judge Michael Melloy wrote for the court.
“The St. Louis ordinance does not meet this test. Rather, it offends the Due Process Clause because it fails to provide fair notice of what is forbidden. We note that the ordinance is not vague in the traditional sense that its language is ambiguous: the language is fairly clear that speech and activities that actually cause a pedestrian or traffic obstruction are prohibited. Rather, the problem is that the ordinance does not provide people with fair notice of when their actions are likely to become unlawful.”
Judges Roger L. Wollman and Steven M. Colloton concurred with Melloy.
Stahl had filed suit along with fellow protester William Demsar, but the latest decision does explain what became of Demsar’s claims.