Sign ordinance
4:44 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Parts of city's sign ordinance called unconstitutional

Updated with city's comments.

If you frequent the Interstate 44/55 intersection on the near south side of St. Louis, you may be familiar with the display pictured above.

The sign, or mural, depending on whom you ask, has been at the center of a case regarding the constitutionality of the city of St. Louis's sign ordinance. Today, a ruling has been issued in the case.

Whether the display, which Jim Roos painted on the building at 1806 S. 13th Street in 2007, is a mural or a sign is a distinction that's at the center of the case.

After city officials ordered Roos to remove the sign, Roos applied for an exemption, calling the display a mural, a work of art - not a sign at all. The city denied his request for an exemption and Roos appealed.

In March of 2010, a district court ruled in the city's favor and said that the display fell "squarely within the Code’s definition of 'sign.' The denial of the permit was based solely on the limitations specifically detailed in the Code."

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard debate on the case back in February, and handed down a ruling today that reverses the judgment of the district court.

Why? Free speech.

The city had argued that Roos's mural was simply too big for its location. The building is an apartment building, and city attorneys argued that its zoning code prohibits signs of more than 30 square feet in that zoning district. (Roos's mural is about 360 square feet).

Attorneys for Roos disagreed. They pointed to several exemptions in the city sign code for things like advertising, flags and seals. Those exemptions, they said, mean the restrictions are content-based and therefore violate the First Amendment.

The federal appeals court agreed in today's ruling.

"Upon review, we conclude that the zoning code definition of sign is impermissibly content-based, because the message conveyed determines whether the speech is subject to the restrictions," the court wrote.

Even if we agree that the restrictions are to accomplish important goals, the opinion continues, we have to ensure that those goals are achieved in a proper manner. That's not the case with the city's sign ordinance.

The appeals court has asked the original judge, Henry Autrey, to determine if the unconstitutional sections of the code can be struck from the document, or if the entire document must be declared unconstitutional.

City attorney Matt Moak issued the following statement:

"We are obviously disappointed with the Court's ruling.  Federal appellate courts have differed on the points made in the ruling and we are examining our options. At no time has the City tried to quell free speech, but rather has tried to regulate aesthetics within legal bounds."