Civil Rights Attorneys Sue to Protect Protesters’ First Amendment Rights
Yesterday, the Southern Center for Human Rights, Law Offices of Gerry Weber, LLC, Dreyer Sterling, LLC, and Mitchell & Shapiro, LLP jointly filed a civil complaint in the United States District Court in the Northern District of Georgia against Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers on behalf of plaintiffs, including Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams and activist Mary Hooks, who were wrongly cited, arrested, and jailed after peacefully protesting voter suppression in the Georgia State Capitol rotunda in November 2018.
Plaintiffs seek to bar further enforcement of O.C.G.A. § 16-11-34.1, the law cited in their arrest, which states it is illegal “recklessly or knowingly to commit any act which may reasonably be expected to prevent or disrupt a session or meeting of the Senate or House of Representatives.” This law is nearly identical to a similar law declared unconstitutional years prior by the Georgia Supreme Court. Plaintiffs wish to lawfully resume protests against voter suppression and disenfranchisement in the upcoming election, and fear being arrested again under an unconstitutional law. Plaintiffs also seek damages for being deprived of their liberty and silenced because of their political speech.
The November 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia was close and hotly contested. In the immediate aftermath, the results were unclear. Then-candidate Brian Kemp, also then-acting Secretary of State, had purged over 500,000 Georgians from the voter rolls. Due to this potential conflict of interest, U.S. Northern District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered Kemp to refrain from certifying the election results until he had preserved and accounted for each provisional ballot. It was against this backdrop that the plaintiffs lawfully assembled in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol on November 13, 2018 to demand that every vote be counted.
While peacefully congregated in the Capitol’s public rotunda, some Plaintiffs briefly chanted “count every vote!” Then, as Plaintiff Mary Hooks was speaking, Georgia State Patrol officers unlawfully arrested Mary Hooks and other plaintiffs, including Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams, knocking several to the ground. Not one plaintiff used a noisemaker or amplification device, and not one plaintiff disrupted or impaired any legislative session which continued in other rooms of the Capitol.
The rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol is a public forum where the public is permitted to congregate and speak. It has historically been used as a location for protests and press conferences, being the central location for free speech activity within the Georgia State Capitol.
The challenged statute is unconstitutional and overly broad. It violates the First Amendment because it does not require proof of intent to disrupt, does not require proof that acts would substantially impair any session, and does not require proof of any actual disruption. Plaintiffs seek to have a demonstration at the Georgia State Capitol in the same location as their prior protests, subject to any constitutional and reasonable COVID-19 restrictions, as soon as possible once they are freed of the unconstitutional threat of arrest.Doc.-1_COMPLAINT