Whose Property Is It?

At one time, the presumption of our legal system was that the individual reigned supreme, that the state must show that a law or regulation is justified, not the the citizen must justify the exercise of his/her liberty.  No issue has ever exemplified this more than freedom of speech.  And no issue has ever demonstrated the inextricable link between property and speech rights than that of Jim Roos in St. Louis.

As George Will rightly notes, the courts have unwisely deferred to governments on the rights of property owners.  In the 2005 Kelo decision, the Supreme Court allowed that governments may use their right of eminent domain to force the sale, to another private entity, of land termed “blighted.”  Roos had properties seized, and in response painted a mural on one of his remaining buildings: “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse.”

Most instructive in the Roos case is the following quote (see Will’s column) from St. Louis Alderman Phyllis Young, who 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.”

Well, yes, they would.  And yes, it should.  Perhaps Alderman Young has failed to understand the underlying principle here.  No one save a hopeless busybody would take it upon him/herself to regulate that which most citizens recognize as a basic right–communicating through signs.   The City of St. Louis allows any number of other signs without permits, but apparently not those criticizing its policies.  Go figure.

Lurking beneath this silliness is something more than a little sinister.  The presumption is that citizens need to check with government before: 1) using their property for the purpose they desire, 2) saying anything unflattering about the government in question.  This turns on its head the entire basis of freedom.  The individual carries the presumption of liberty.  It is government that must demonstrate a compelling reason to constrain it.

Young, and those who share her sensibilities about telling other people what to do, are now on notice.  Find other hobbies.  We who are serious about individual rights have been too busy doing something useful to bother ourselves with the likes of you.  Kelo has changed all that.  The next time you decide we need to check with you before using our property as we see fit and speaking as we see our way clear, we’ll send you back to tend your own garden.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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