Civil rights groups file lawsuit against City of Florence ordinances used to silence and intimidate protesters at Confederate monuments

MONTGOMERY, Ala. –The Alabama Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU of Alabama, and the Duke University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic filed suit Monday night against the City of Florence and its Chief of Police Ron Tyler, claiming they used the city’s parade permit and noise ordinances to discourage protesters from exercising their First Amendment rights.

Since at least June 2020, demonstrators from the local organization Project Say Something (PSS) have engaged in peaceful protests and other political activity to protest a Confederate monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse. Then, after the murder of George Floyd, the PSS continued to protest, eventually protesting an estimated 160 to 175 times by the end of 2020. There were no documented incidents of violence or obstruction by the PSS during the one of those many manifestations.

Nonetheless, in 2021, Police Chief Tyler began making permit applications conditional on paying unexplained police protection fees, threatening citations, relocating protests to less visible locations, and ignoring threats. and the actual harassment of counter-protesters who were not subject to the same scrutiny. .

“Alabama has a long history of fighting racial injustice through peaceful protest, and it’s imperative that we don’t lose that ability to speak truth to power when the situation calls for it,” said Camille Bennett, founder of Project Say Something. “We have always worked to ensure that we follow proper ordinances and have done everything we can to work in good faith with city officials to find a way to exercise our First Amendment rights.”

“It’s not up to the city or the chief of police to tell people where and how to protest. The First Amendment holds that everywhere, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to Mexico, there is a zone of protest,” said David Gespass, co-chairman of the Alabama chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

City law enforcement officers enforced parade and noise ordinances in an inconsistent, arbitrary, and discriminatory manner, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of PSS-sponsored protests, particularly near the Palace of justice where the Confederate monument is located.

In fact, city officials enforced the noise ordinance so broadly that it even included unamplified human voices, leading protesters to engage in at least ten silent demonstrations to avoid the reprisals of the police officers of Florence if they protested vocally at the place envisaged.

“Due to the arbitrary way the noise ordinance was enforced, we were literally silenced by city officials for speaking up,” Bennett added. “But even if we had to protest in silence, we will never stop finding ways to make our voices heard.”

“After several attempts to negotiate with the city of Florence and its chief of police, we had no choice but to take this matter to court,” said Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director of the ACLU of Alabama. “The public interest demands that everyone be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to the fullest extent guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Project Say Something is a grassroots organization based in Florence, Alabama, founded in 2014 by Camille Bennett to fight racial injustice through communication, education, and community empowerment and accomplishes its mission through various means. legal, such as holding peaceful protests on public sidewalks and common areas. near the Lauderdale County Courthouse. More information is available on their website at https://projectsaysomething.org/.

Duke Law’s First Amendment Clinic offers Duke Law students the opportunity to work directly with clients facing free speech issues. Within the Clinic’s team, law students perform pro bono legal services under the supervision of experienced lawyers. The Clinic specifically represents individuals and organizations with First Amendment claims who would not be able to afford specialized legal assistance without heavy financial burdens. Law students are the primary drivers of all legal work done at the clinic, from drafting motions and factums to managing pleadings. Several bright and talented students were implicated in this case, including: Jonathan Ellison, Sadie Kavalier, Yoo Jung Hah, Shannon O’Hara, Andrew Webb and Jenny Wheeler.