The erosion of limited government & individual sovereignty

George Wills reports on a free speech case in St. Louis:

[Jim] Roos responded [to repeated efforts by the local government to seize his property] by painting on the side of one of his buildings a large mural — a slash through a red circle containing the words “End Eminent Domain Abuse.” The government that had provoked him declared his sign “illegal” and demanded that he seek a permit for it. He did. Then the government denied the permit.

The St. Louis sign code puts the burden on the citizen to justify his or her speech rather than on the government to justify limiting speech. And the code exempts certain kinds of signs from requiring permits. These include works of art, flags of nations, states or cities, and symbols or crests of religious, fraternal or professional organizations. And, of course, the government exempted political signs. So the exempted categories are defined by the signs’ content.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm defending Roos, notes that signs may be the oldest form of mass communication — Gutenberg made advertising posters — and they remain an inexpensive means of communicating with fellow citizens. St. Louis says that it regulates signs for “aesthetic” reasons and to promote traffic safety, but it admits that it has no guidelines for the bureaucrats exercising aesthetic discretion and no empirical evidence connecting signs with traffic risks. And why would Roos’s mural be less aesthetic and more distracting to drivers than, say, a sign — exempted from any permit requirement — urging the election of the kind of city officials who enjoy censoring Roos?

St. Louis is not the problem; government is. Many people go into it because they enjoy bossing people around. Surely this is why a court had to overturn a decision by the government of Glendale, Ohio, when it threatened a man with fines and jail because he put a “for sale” sign in his car parked in front of his house. The city said that people might be distracted by the sign and walk into traffic.

St. Louis Alderman Phyllis Young is distressed that Roos’s speech might escape government control: “If this sign is allowed to remain, then anyone with property along any thoroughfare can paint signs indicating the opinion or current matter relevant to the owner to influence passersby with no control by any City agency. The precedent should not be allowed.”

The alderman’s horror of uncontrolled speech is an example of what Elizabeth Price Foley, law professor at Florida International University, calls “an ineluctable byproduct of disregarding the morality of American law.” In her book “Liberty for All” (2006, Yale), she says that the growing exercise of legislative power “in the name of majoritarian whims” has eroded America’s “twin foundational presumptions” — limited government and residual individual sovereignty.

via In St. Louis, a protest sign meets government arrogance – The Washington Post.

Can you think of other examples of the erosion of these “twin foundational presumptions”? Is there the possibility that we might have too much individual sovereignty and that our government is too limited? Or are there lines that need to be drawn?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    “… the growing exercise of legislative power ‘in the name of majoritarian whims’ …”

    That’s exactly what the “limited government” folks engage in when they believe the voters have given them a mandate. At least in Wisconsin. ;-)

  • Tom Hering

    “… the growing exercise of legislative power ‘in the name of majoritarian whims’ …”

    That’s exactly what the “limited government” folks engage in when they believe the voters have given them a mandate. At least in Wisconsin. ;-)

  • Porcell

    Tom, the majority of Wisconsin voters who favor fiscal reform in a state with serious fiscal problems is hardly involved in a whim.

    On the fundamental issue posed by Will, on aesthetic grounds alone people should not be allowed be allowed to make a political sign out of the side of their house. Government has every right to regulate the posting of both residential and commercial signs.

    One of the reasons that European cities, towns, and villages are physically far more attractive than most of those in America is that they strictly limit signage and at time even design features.

    One may be a fundamentally free individual and still favor some reasonable government regulation.

  • Porcell

    Tom, the majority of Wisconsin voters who favor fiscal reform in a state with serious fiscal problems is hardly involved in a whim.

    On the fundamental issue posed by Will, on aesthetic grounds alone people should not be allowed be allowed to make a political sign out of the side of their house. Government has every right to regulate the posting of both residential and commercial signs.

    One of the reasons that European cities, towns, and villages are physically far more attractive than most of those in America is that they strictly limit signage and at time even design features.

    One may be a fundamentally free individual and still favor some reasonable government regulation.

  • DonS

    Isn’t the phrase “End Eminent Domain Abuse” a political statement? Exempted under the category of political signs?

    I’m pretty sure the ordinance as written, or at least as enforced, in unconstitutional, at least as described by Will.

  • DonS

    Isn’t the phrase “End Eminent Domain Abuse” a political statement? Exempted under the category of political signs?

    I’m pretty sure the ordinance as written, or at least as enforced, in unconstitutional, at least as described by Will.

  • DonS

    “the growing exercise of legislative power ‘in the name of majoritarian whims’”, is addressable, by electing different legislators or, if the abuse is unconstitutional, through the courts.

    What is worse than overbearing legislative bodies is what we have now — intrusive courts filled with busybody judges who insist on substituting their judgment for that of elected legislators. There is no remedy for this kind of governmental abuse, and it has resulted, over the year, in a vast increase in the size and scope of government.

  • DonS

    “the growing exercise of legislative power ‘in the name of majoritarian whims’”, is addressable, by electing different legislators or, if the abuse is unconstitutional, through the courts.

    What is worse than overbearing legislative bodies is what we have now — intrusive courts filled with busybody judges who insist on substituting their judgment for that of elected legislators. There is no remedy for this kind of governmental abuse, and it has resulted, over the year, in a vast increase in the size and scope of government.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Porcell (@2), you appear to have completely missed Will’s point.

    On aesthetic grounds alone people should not be allowed be allowed to make a political sign out of the side of their house.

    So your opinion is that the government should be in the business of making aesthetic judgments … and enforcing them?

    Government has every right to regulate the posting of both residential and commercial signs.

    Not if it is regulating them according to what it thinks of their content or even, heaven forbid, their aesthetic quality. That would clearly run afoul of the First Amendment.

    One of the reasons that European cities, towns, and villages are physically far more attractive than most of those in America is that they strictly limit signage and at time even design features.

    Um, they also don’t have the First Amendment. Which I rather like. European cities are also lousy with graffiti in a way that American cities rarely are. Also, I’ve seen plenty of ugly billboards and signs in Europe. Don’t know where you’ve been looking.

    One may be a fundamentally free individual and still favor some reasonable government regulation.

    Perhaps, but this regulation is not reasonable by any standard except that of loving government intervention.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Porcell (@2), you appear to have completely missed Will’s point.

    On aesthetic grounds alone people should not be allowed be allowed to make a political sign out of the side of their house.

    So your opinion is that the government should be in the business of making aesthetic judgments … and enforcing them?

    Government has every right to regulate the posting of both residential and commercial signs.

    Not if it is regulating them according to what it thinks of their content or even, heaven forbid, their aesthetic quality. That would clearly run afoul of the First Amendment.

    One of the reasons that European cities, towns, and villages are physically far more attractive than most of those in America is that they strictly limit signage and at time even design features.

    Um, they also don’t have the First Amendment. Which I rather like. European cities are also lousy with graffiti in a way that American cities rarely are. Also, I’ve seen plenty of ugly billboards and signs in Europe. Don’t know where you’ve been looking.

    One may be a fundamentally free individual and still favor some reasonable government regulation.

    Perhaps, but this regulation is not reasonable by any standard except that of loving government intervention.

  • Porcell

    Todd, I’ve traveled extensively in Europe for over fifty years. Comparatively speaking, Europe’s cities, towns, and villages are far more attractive with fewer billboards, garish commercial signs, and strip malls. Only a few déclassé areas of Europe have fallen for low American signage and strip malls

    In my New England town residential and commercial signs are rigorously restricted. We have, God forbid, a McDonalds with no golden arch and sign more than ten inches high and three feet wide. Neon signs are illegal. No house would be allowed to have a political sign grossly painted on its side. During elections political signs are not allowed on residential properties. One may freely write about and discuss political matters without polluting the beauty of any city or town.

    I understand from where the libertarian George Will is coming and quite disagree with him.

  • Porcell

    Todd, I’ve traveled extensively in Europe for over fifty years. Comparatively speaking, Europe’s cities, towns, and villages are far more attractive with fewer billboards, garish commercial signs, and strip malls. Only a few déclassé areas of Europe have fallen for low American signage and strip malls

    In my New England town residential and commercial signs are rigorously restricted. We have, God forbid, a McDonalds with no golden arch and sign more than ten inches high and three feet wide. Neon signs are illegal. No house would be allowed to have a political sign grossly painted on its side. During elections political signs are not allowed on residential properties. One may freely write about and discuss political matters without polluting the beauty of any city or town.

    I understand from where the libertarian George Will is coming and quite disagree with him.

  • DonS

    Porcell — 10 inches high? How do you find a business you are looking for? Even historically, quaint New England town shopkeepers were allowed bigger signs than that. Nicely hand-painted “Ye Olde Taverne & Grille” on a pole in front of the tavern, etc.

    Me, I like those 60 foot fast food and gas pole signs adjacent to interstate interchanges. That’s classic Americana! ;-)

  • DonS

    Porcell — 10 inches high? How do you find a business you are looking for? Even historically, quaint New England town shopkeepers were allowed bigger signs than that. Nicely hand-painted “Ye Olde Taverne & Grille” on a pole in front of the tavern, etc.

    Me, I like those 60 foot fast food and gas pole signs adjacent to interstate interchanges. That’s classic Americana! ;-)

  • http://thefragrantharbor.blogspot.com Catherine

    I see that sign every time I drive home from the theater I do shows at. It’s rather large, but it’s not NEARLY as distracting as the huge light show on the Lumiere place by the Arch. The sign is static, it’s just there. But the Lights on the Lumiere Place move and make pictures and are just generally distracting even from the Poplar Street Bridge. Right next to the building is a huge digital sign that shows pictures and words moving about. I wonder why the Lumiere Place can get away with “distraction” but the End Eminent Domain sign cannot?

    Because the Lumiere Place doesn’t have a political message, even if it’s signage is incredibly distracting, I suppose.

  • http://thefragrantharbor.blogspot.com Catherine

    I see that sign every time I drive home from the theater I do shows at. It’s rather large, but it’s not NEARLY as distracting as the huge light show on the Lumiere place by the Arch. The sign is static, it’s just there. But the Lights on the Lumiere Place move and make pictures and are just generally distracting even from the Poplar Street Bridge. Right next to the building is a huge digital sign that shows pictures and words moving about. I wonder why the Lumiere Place can get away with “distraction” but the End Eminent Domain sign cannot?

    Because the Lumiere Place doesn’t have a political message, even if it’s signage is incredibly distracting, I suppose.

  • Porcell

    Don without the necessity of town by-laws, most local tavern keepers had enough aesthetic good sense to keep their signs small. In the very early days in New England tavern keepers well knew that they were regarded rather lowly; consequently on the matter of signs they were restrained. We have one of these signs at the local historical society .

  • Porcell

    Don without the necessity of town by-laws, most local tavern keepers had enough aesthetic good sense to keep their signs small. In the very early days in New England tavern keepers well knew that they were regarded rather lowly; consequently on the matter of signs they were restrained. We have one of these signs at the local historical society .

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Porcell (@6), I’ve been to Europe plenty, too, and as much as I’ve enjoyed my travels, you’re painting a picture that’s a bit too … unrealistic. Unless you’re only visiting twee tourist sections, it sounds nothing like the Europe I’ve visited, which has a remarkable abundance of in-your-face advertising (if perhaps not so many American-size billboards, but then, there isn’t the room, is there?). Heck, every time a cultural monument is under construction (and there is hardly a major European city where a significant monument is not!), its edifice is covered by a screen with … yes, advertising. I can only assume you’ve never used public transport to get anywhere in Europe, as well.

    All of which misses the point. As do you, still. Please reread the article.

    St. Louis has no restrictions for certain types of content: “Art, flags of nations, states or cities, and symbols or crests of religious, fraternal or professional organizations. And, of course, … political signs.” Any of these would have been allowed, sans permit, for slapping up on the side of Roos’ house. This is unconstitutional, and I don’t see how anyone who claims to be a “conservative” could do anything but agree. Otherwise, one is to argue for utter statism, in which the whims of state bureaucrats determine the freedom of your speech.

    Your town, on the other hand, has apparently not chosen to allow some types of content but restrict others. It is not giving preferential treatment to some kinds of speech. It is merely saying that large outdoor signage of all types is banned. This is quite a bit more constitutional.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Porcell (@6), I’ve been to Europe plenty, too, and as much as I’ve enjoyed my travels, you’re painting a picture that’s a bit too … unrealistic. Unless you’re only visiting twee tourist sections, it sounds nothing like the Europe I’ve visited, which has a remarkable abundance of in-your-face advertising (if perhaps not so many American-size billboards, but then, there isn’t the room, is there?). Heck, every time a cultural monument is under construction (and there is hardly a major European city where a significant monument is not!), its edifice is covered by a screen with … yes, advertising. I can only assume you’ve never used public transport to get anywhere in Europe, as well.

    All of which misses the point. As do you, still. Please reread the article.

    St. Louis has no restrictions for certain types of content: “Art, flags of nations, states or cities, and symbols or crests of religious, fraternal or professional organizations. And, of course, … political signs.” Any of these would have been allowed, sans permit, for slapping up on the side of Roos’ house. This is unconstitutional, and I don’t see how anyone who claims to be a “conservative” could do anything but agree. Otherwise, one is to argue for utter statism, in which the whims of state bureaucrats determine the freedom of your speech.

    Your town, on the other hand, has apparently not chosen to allow some types of content but restrict others. It is not giving preferential treatment to some kinds of speech. It is merely saying that large outdoor signage of all types is banned. This is quite a bit more constitutional.


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