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Old Dominion University vs. Liberty: Norfolk Battle at the Heart of Constitutional Freedom

norfolk-signAs a Libertarian, I have a certain number of specific pet peeves, which infuriate me, despite lacking any degree of serious national attention. I rarely write about them, because writing about things no one cares about, is silly. That is, unless you can make them care about it. Eminent Domain is one of the most insidious practices by State and Federal governments. As Americans, our ancestors fought and died for their rights to freedom of religion, to freedom of expression, for the right to bare arms, and for all the rights of private property. Eminent Domain is considered a legitimate theft of private property in the United States of America. The United States of America is wrong.

I implore you to read the following article issued by The Institute for Justice. I will quote this article below, to encourage your curiosity into a Virginia University’s attempt to steal the land held by a private Virginia company, threatening their business and the jobs of every employee that works there. That Old Dominion University is the sort of institution that would seek to steal land from private citizens is a matter I will leave to you, and pray that you consider their character before sending your children to them.

Hitting so close to home, then, maybe this will not remain merely a pet peeve of this constitutionalist libertarian, but become the focus of freedom loving people all across the great state of Virginia!

Arlington, Va.—Ten years ago, in its infamous Kelo decision, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a radically broad interpretation of the government’s power to take private property through eminent domain. But the Court recognized that the “necessity and wisdom of using eminent domain” are “matters of legitimate public debate.” Central Radio Company attempted to participate in that debate when the government tried to take its property through eminent domain. The city of Norfolk, Va., however, prevented it from doing so, barring the company from hanging a protest banner on the land in dispute. Now Central Radio is taking its fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to review a major case at the intersection of free speech and property rights.

“This case demonstrates just how intertwined our constitutional rights are—how protecting free speech is essential to protecting our other fundamental liberties, including property rights,” noted Michael Bindas, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents Central Radio.

Central Radio has been a Norfolk institution for more than 80 years, but in 2010 the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority moved to take its land and building through eminent domain and turn it over to nearby Old Dominion University (a land grab Central Radio would ultimately defeat). In response to the threat, Central Radio hung a 375-square foot protest banner on the very building the government was trying to take. It read: “50 years on this street/78 years in Norfolk/100 workers/Threatened by eminent domain!”

“50 years on this street, 78 years in Norfolk, 100 Workers”, threatened by a Virginia college and by our governments’ usurpation of our private property rights. Without free speech, all the rest of our rights are in jeopardy. Imagine being unable to defend yourself publicly on land that your State intends to steal from you for the purpose of turning it over to “the public”, a university.

 Acting on a complaint made by an official at Old Dominion—the very entity that stood to acquire Central Radio’s property—the city quickly cited Central Radio and ordered the banner be taken down. Yet, under Norfolk’s sign code, the banner would have been allowed if it had fallen into one of the various favored categories of signs that Norfolk exempts from regulation. For example, a banner of the same size, in the same location, would have been perfectly permissible if, rather than protesting city policy, it depicted the city flag or crest.

Thus, free speech isn’t free if it offends those with the power over whether or not that speech ought to be free or not. This is insane, but this is life in the great State of Virginia.

In the fall of 2013, the Virginia Supreme Court held that the city’s attempted taking of Central Radio’s property was illegal, vindicating the company’s property rights. Unfortunately, however, the federal courts refused to vindicate Central Radio’s free speech rights. When the company challenged the city’s sign code under the First Amendment, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia upheld it. And in January 2015, a divided 2-1 decision of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court.

According to the 4th Circuit majority opinion, it was irrelevant that the sign code drew distinctions between different types of banners based on their content so long as those distinctions were what the court deemed “reasonable.” Moreover, restricting Central Radio’s banner was warranted, according to the majority, because some passersby had “reacted emphatically” to the sign by waving, honking and shouting in support when they saw it. The majority claimed that these expressions of support were evidence that “motorists [we]re distracted by [the] sign while driving.”

“Unfortunately, the 4th Circuit allowed Norfolk to play favorites with the First Amendment by arbitrarily deciding who gets to speak and what they get to say,” explained Bindas. “Worse, it held that Norfolk was justified in restricting Central Radio’s banner precisely because it was effective. The honking, waving and shouting of passing motorists were expressions of support for Central Radio—not evidence of distraction. Government cannot regulate speech based on the supportive reactions of those who see or hear it.”

Apparently, the pressure applied to our State, galvanized by the free speech which occurred on the property which this Virginia University had no right to usurp, is now a greater threat to The State, than the attempted usurpation. If, as I imagine they assume, victims of government overreach in Virginia are allowed to publicly defend themselves on the land which “the public” intends to steal, then it becomes that much harder for the State to steal it in the first place. Therefore, while upholding the property rights of this Norfolk business, the courts seek to prevent any such recurrence of a similar result, by depriving future plaintiffs of their 1st Amendment Rights.

We pretend we are free, because of our history; but this is no less a pretense. The State of Virginia, like many other States, seeks to deprive us not only of our right to private property, but also of our rights to free speech.

About Steven Brodie Tucker

Graduated with a degree in Philosophy from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Also studied economics and political science at George Mason.

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Tom White Says:

Nothing is more conservative than a republican wanting to get their majority back. And nothing is more liberal than a republican WITH a majority.

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