Demonstrators in Graham will be allowed to protest without permits after a federal court struck down the city’s protest permit ordinance with a temporary restraining order. The ruling comes after civil rights groups sued several city and Alamance officials over the ordinance in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
Antiracist protesters have been protesting against a Confederate monument in downtown Graham for several weeks. The city has doubled-down on protesters with a heavy police presence and weekend curfew, which was briefly instituted on the weekend of June 27.
“This ordinance’s only purpose was to suppress the rights of protestors. People have a right to express dissent against racism, police brutality, and white supremacy,” Kristi Graunke, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement after the court’s decision. “The order issued today upholds their right to do so without fear of harassment or arrest.”
In addition to the temporary restraining order, the suit asked for an injunction that would permanently prevent the city from requiring protests to obtain permits. A hearing on that motion will take place when the temporary order expires on July 20.
Under Graham’s code of ordinances, protests on public property were illegal unless organizers obtained a permit from the county in advance. Applications for these permits were to be filed 24 hours in advance, and, crucially, could be denied by the highest-ranking available law enforcement officer “when the activity or purpose stated in the application would violate any ordinance of the city or statute of the state, or when the activity or purpose would endanger the public health or safety, or hinder or prevent the orderly movement of pedestrian or vehicular traffic on the sidewalks or streets of the city.”
The ordinance also made it illegal for a minor to attend a protest without the express permission of law enforcement.
The protest permit ordinance was thrust into the public eye on June 26, when the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office announced that they would not be granting permits to protesters at the Alamance County Courthouse “for the foreseeable future.” Anyone found protesting at the courthouse, then, would be immediately arrested.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Though landmark Supreme Court cases have held that government officials can place reasonable restrictions on the “time, place, and manner” of a protest, these restrictions must pass “strict scrutiny” tests, especially when they might stop a protest before it happens.
Civil rights groups argued that the Graham ordinance did not hold up under strict scrutiny, and on July 2, they filed a lawsuit against several Graham and Alamance County public officials on behalf of the Alamance County branch of the NAACP and eight protesters. Not only was the ordinance a violation of the First Amendment’s protections for free assembly, the suit claimed, but it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause by being overly vague in its scope.
“The Ordinance is an unconstitutional prior restraint on First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable and content-based time, place and manner restrictions of speech in traditional public forums and violates due process because it is void for vagueness,” the lawsuit read.
The U.S. District Court’s preliminary decision, delivered Monday morning, suggests that the civil rights groups have a case. The decision itself notes that temporary restraining orders are only granted when a plaintiff demonstrates that they are “likely to succeed on the merits of at least one of their claims” before saying that both the First and Fourteenth Amendment claims seem likely to succeed.
Whether or not that holds true, once the preliminary injunction hearing kicks off on the 20th, remains to be seen. For now, protesters in Graham are once again free to turn out again at the Confederate soldier monument—and exercise their right to protest.
The Graham Police Department did not respond immediately to an INDY request for comment.
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