The organizer of a protest scheduled to take place in Charlottesville, Virginia, this Saturday over its decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park has sued the city for relocating the site of his rally on the eve of the event.
Free speech attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute filed the lawsuit in Richmond federal court Thursday on behalf of Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville blogger and the brains behind Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, after city officials revoked his event permit this week and ordered him to relocate the protest from one park to another over public safety concerns.
The Charlottesville City Council voted in April to remove the monument and rename Lee Park, but a judge granted a temporary injunction the following month leaving the statue in place pending further proceedings.
Mr. Kessler had planned to hold the event at Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, where the statue slated for removal has stood for nearly a century. He received a permit from the city on June 13 to hold a “free speech rally in support of the Lee monument” there this Saturday, but abruptly learned on Monday of this week that the event had been moved to Mclntire Park roughly a mile away.
Saturday’s rally is intended to protest the city’s scheduled removal of the monument as well as its recent renaming of Lee Park, and Mr. Kessler’s attorneys argued Thursday that holding the rally elsewhere would “dilute and alter” the demonstrators’ message as well as “substantially undermine” their ability to communicate their cause.
“Unless Defendants and their agents are enjoined, Plaintiff, other similarly-situated protesters who share his views and other members of the public will be irreparably harmed as they will be prevented from peacefully gathering to express their views on pressing issues of public concern at a time, place and in a manner reasonable for them to do so,” his attorneys wrote.
“Plaintiffs constitutional rights will be violated, and irreparable harm will result, if the Court does not provide immediate relief enjoining Defendants from preventing or impeding Plaintiffs constitutional rights to free speech, petition and assembly,” they added.
A judge is expected to rule on Mr. Kessler’s request for an emergency injunction against the city at a hearing Friday, WVIR-TV reported, a day before demonstrators are scheduled to descend on Charlottesville to participate in the slated “Unite the Right” rally as well as counterprotests scheduled to occur Saturday.
The city wrote in a letter to Mr. Kessler on Monday this week that “many thousands of individuals are likely to attend the demonstration” and that it would be “unable to accommodate safely even a peaceful crowd of this size” in Emancipation Park.
“The First Amendment guarantees political speech, including protest, the highest level of protection — and the right to speak out is most robust in traditional public fora, including public parks and streets,” Mr. Kessler’s attorneys responded Thursday.
“While the message of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally may raise strong feelings of opposition among area residents and political leaders, that opposition can be no basis for government action that would suppress the First Amendment rights of demonstrators who have acted according to the law,” their lawsuit said.
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