A month after former Ladue Mayor Edith Spink died, the legal legacy of her fight against a little, anti-war sign provided the basis of a federal court decision striking down the St. Louis law that banned a large mural that opposed abuse of eminent domain.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis cited the 1994 decision of Ladue v. Gilleo as a reason that St. Louis’ sign law is unconstitutional.
It’s almost always a violation of the First Amendment when a municipality restricts speech based on its content. That is what the city of St. Louis did in banning the eminent domain sign while permitting other kinds of signs that had flags, organizational symbols or works of art.
The signs involved in the two cases were very different. Margaret Gilleo’s little 8.5×11 inch sign in her second story window read, “For Peace in the Gulf” – a protest against the first Persian Gulf war. Activist Jim Roos’ 336 square foot mural, visible from I
nterstates 44 and 55 read: “End Eminent Domain Abuse” with a red circle and a slash through it.
But both the city of St. Louis and Mrs. Spink made the same argument. Both claimed that cities could set rules for signs that would preserve the aesthetics of the community. Both lost, and both lost big. The decisions were unanimous.
The appeals court panel, referring to the Ladue case, decided that the definition of sign in the St. Louis ordinance was based on the content of the sign because all of the exceptions to the definition were ones based on content. The exceptions permitted flags, symbols of fraternal or religious organizations, works of art and time and temperature devices.
Because the definition was content based, the highest level of constitutional scrutiny applied, the court said. That scrutiny requires that a law be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. The court ruled that the St. Louis law failed both parts of the test. Aesthetics is not a compelling state interest and the St. Louis law was not narrowly written.