North Carolina City Ordinance, one of the most speech-restrictive in the country, effectively bans any protest
RALEIGH — The American Civil Liberties Union together with a coalition of civil rights groups today filed an emergency lawsuit against the city of Graham, North Carolina, seeking to immediately block a city ordinance that the government is using to suppress protests against racism, police brutality, and white supremacy. The city has most recently used the ordinance to quash protests against the city’s only Confederate monument.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the NAACP Alamance county branch and individual protesters.
“I sought to gather with others to express support for Black lives, advocate for the removal of the monument, and for equally representative government, and I was denied that right.” said Tenae Turner, a plaintiff in the case. “It sends a clear message that racist monuments are valued more highly than Black lives and our constitutional rights.”
The ordinance, which mirrors a law the U.S. Supreme Court struck down more than 50 years ago, is one of the most speech-restrictive laws nationwide. It makes it illegal for two people to be outside together, and even one person to walk alone, without a permit for the purposes of protesting or “making known any position or thought.”
“Peace and justice should belong to everyone, everywhere and all the time,” said Barrett Brown, President of the Alamance Branch of NAACP. “The city’s permit requirement and periodic protest ban violate our most fundamental rights to peacefully assemble and petition our government for redress.”
The civil rights groups argue that the ordinance violates the First Amendment and gives the government sweeping discretion to suppress speech based on its content — including on the basis of how listeners are likely to respond.
“This ordinance is a sweeping bar to the rights of people to freely assemble and protest in Graham. People have a constitutional right to gather and voice their concerns in public areas without fear of arrest, harassment, or intimidation from law enforcement,” said Kristi Graunke with the ACLU of North Carolina. “It is appalling that Alamance County officials would trample on the First Amendment rights of their own constituents for the sake of a monument to white supremacy.”
The ACLU has filed multiple lawsuits across the country in response to unconstitutional law enforcement attacks on journalists and protesters, including suing President Trump and other administration officials for the firing of tear gas on protesters outside the White House on June 1.
“Any mayor, police chief, or governor who imposes such draconian restrictions on the right to protest should understand that they will be sued,” said Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “The ACLU will hold accountable any government actor who violates the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, the ACLU of North Carolina, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Scott Holmes and the Lockamy Law Firm, and the Law Office of Thomas W. Cadwallader in federal court for the Middle District of North Carolina. It seeks preliminary relief blocking the city from implementing the order while the underlying First Amendment challenge proceeds.
“This site represents the very racist past and present these protestors want to speak out against,” said Elizabeth Haddix, managing attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The community is trying to reckon with its own racist history in the midst of police violence against citizens across the country; at the same time, sheriff’s deputies restrict the most basic rights of its citizens to protest while threatening to arrest anyone for simply wearing anti-racist clothing.”