Can a government that seeks to take your land also take away your free speech rights when you use them to protest the government’s abusive action?
That is the central question in a battle raging in Norfolk, Va., where a small business hung a banner on its own building to protest the use of eminent domain for a local university. Then, when the university complained about the banner, the government ordered the small business to cover up its political protest. The Norfolk case demonstrates how all of our rights—such as free speech, property rights and economic liberty—are intertwined and when you lose one right, you can lose them all.
Tomorrow, February 5, 2013, the free speech case in Norfolk that has been going on since May, 2012 will be submitted to the trial judge for final decision. The judge could order a trial or issue a decision from the bench without trial.
Central Radio is a small business that has operated in Norfolk for nearly 80 years. For three years, it has battled the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Agency (NRHA), which seeks to take Central Radio’s land through eminent domain and give it to Old Dominion University (ODU) for an unspecified—and therefore not public—use. The NRHA’s use of its eminent domain power over Central Radio and similar properties was authorized by the city council.
To protest the government’s action, Central Radio hung a 375-square-foot banner on the side of its own building protesting the taking. Old Dominion University’s Real Estate Foundation, however, complained to the city about Central Radio’s banner. The city originally responded by telling Central Radio that it may have a sign that is, in effect, ineffective, measuring no more than 60-square-feet, and therefore not visible to passersby. But now, the city refuses to even commit to how large the protest banner can be.
The city’s enforcement of the sign code has not been consistent. A drive through the city shows frequent illegal banners. For instance, the prominent Nauticus Museum has a flashing sign that is larger than the sign code allowed—but senior city officials ordered its staff to “ignore it.” The city itself often hangs banners on buildings, such as Chrysler Hall, that are not only illegal but far larger than Central Radio’s protest banner, demonstrating that the city feels free speech is fine for the government, but not those who wish to protest the government’s abusive actions.
During the course of the litigation in the free speech case, Central Radio was forced to cover up all but a small portion of its banner, or risk suffering fines of up to $1,000 a day under the sign code. Central Radio is hopeful the court will grant them victory, so they can once again display their banner.