Woman Criticizes Honolulu’s Government, Has Her Protest Signs Bulldozed
How people respond to criticism can reveal a lot about their character. Some might try to debate or reason with those they disagree with. Others prefer to ignore critics. City officials in Honolulu take a different approach: They use a bulldozer.
Choon James is a successful real estate broker with over two decades of experience in Hawaii. But the city of Honolulu is seeking to seize property she’s owned for almost a decade to build what she calls a “super-sized” fire station in rural Hauula.
Since January 2010, she has put up signs to protest Honolulu’s use of eminent domain. These signs declare “Eminent Domain Abuse: Who’s Next?” and “YouTube Eminent Domain Abuse—Hawaii.” For more than three years these signs have been up without any incident.
But now the city is showing a callous disregard for Choon’s freedom of speech. Back in May, Honolulu seized two of her eminent domain protest signs. Without her consent, city employees went onto the property and seized and impounded her signs before damaging them. Even worse, the city slapped her with a notice for trespassing, for property she is trying to defend in court.
After these signs were torn down, Choon placed three more signs there. These lasted just a few months before the city once again seized the signs. This time, Honolulu was much more dramatic. On October 18, city workers, backed by police officers, squad cars and a bulldozer, came by and literally bulldozed those protest signs.
The city’s actions show a shameful lack of respect for the First and Fourth Amendments. Citizens have a right to protest government actions. The First Amendment was enacted precisely to protect citizens who criticize the government from retaliation. Lawsuits challenging Honolulu’s unreasonable seizures and chilling attacks on free speech are now pending in federal court.
Unfortunately, Honolulu is not alone in trying to silence critics who question eminent domain. The Institute for Justice has represented citizens in St. Louis, Mo., Norfolk, Va., Tennessee, and Texas who protested abusive property seizures and faced censorship. Out of these four cases, IJ successfully defended free speech in three cases, while the fourth is currently in litigation.
After 24 of his buildings were taken by St. Louis, Jim Roos painted a giant mural on a building he owned advocating “End Eminent Domain Abuse.” But St. Louis labeled the mural an “illegal sign” and wanted to force Jim to remove the sign (and stifle his right to protest) or face code violations. He teamed up with the Institute for Justice and sued the city. In a major win for the First Amendment, in July 2011, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Jim and allowed the mural to stay up.
In a similar vein, IJ has defended grassroots activists from a frivolous defamation lawsuit and protected an investigative journalist’s right to free speech from a vindictive private developer.
More recently, the Institute for Justice is suing the city of Norfolk for trying to squash a small business owner’s eminent domain protest sign. The Central Radio Company, a repair shop, has been in Norfolk for almost eight decades. But Norfolk had plans to seize the property with eminent domain for a private redevelopment project.
To protest, owner Bob Wilson displayed a huge banner on-site. The city responded by telling Bob he had to take down the sign or face fines of up to $1,000 per day. Fortunately, the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously struck down the city’s attempt to seize Bob’s land; his free speech case is still infederal court.
As the cases make clear, courts routinely respect Americans’ First Amendment rights. Honolulu should do the same.