8th Circuit invalidates St. Louis sign ordinance

Monday, August 13, 2012

A St. Louis ordinance prohibiting signs that impede traffic or pedestrians does not give people fair notice of what is prohibited and chills protected First Amendment activity, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In February 2009, Donald Stahl, a member of a group called “9/11 Questions Group,” gathered with two other protesters and held signs on the Park Avenue overpass, located over the merger of Interstates 44 and 55. Stahl and another person held up a sign that read “911 was an inside job.”

Police received a call about “an offensive sign” and went to the overpass. An officer ordered the three protesters to leave the overpass. When they refused, he placed them in handcuffs. Another officer then arrived and arrested Stahl and one of the other protesters for violating a 1979 ordinance that provides:

“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.”

When Stahl appeared in a St. Louis municipal court about the arrest, he learned that the charge had been dismissed. However, he filed a federal lawsuit asking the court to declare the ordinance unconstitutional. He contended that the ordinance violated the right to due process of law, because it failed to provide adequate notice of when people’s signs might impede traffic. He also argued that the law violated the First Amendment because it chilled him and his group from engaging in protected protest speech.

A federal district court granted the city summary judgment in November 2010. “The purpose of the ordinance is not to suppress a message but rather to prevent certain undesirable secondary effects, that is, restricted traffic flow and hazards to pedestrians,” the district court wrote.

However, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court in its Aug. 6 decision in Stahl v. City of St. Louis.  A three-judge panel unanimously determined that the ordinance “offends the Due Process Clause because it fails to provide fair notice of what is forbidden.”

The appeals court also said the law was impermissible because of its “resulting chilling effect on core First Amendment speech.”

The panel concluded: “The ordinance criminalizes activity based primarily on often unpredictable reactions of third parties rather than directly on a person’s own actions, and it excessively chills protected First Amendment activity.”

Also see: A big sign of victory

 

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