Civil rights groups on Friday filed a lawsuit against Alamance County and the city of Graham, North Carolina, after officials issued a new ordinance last week announcing the police department would not be issuing protest permits during the city's current state of emergency.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU, and a local law firm filed the lawsuit and a temporary restraining order on behalf of Alamance County NAACP and eight individuals who were planning to protest at the Alamance County Courthouse in the center of Graham.
The courthouse is the site of a Confederate monument, and like similar statues it has drawn demonstrations in recent weeks amid the ongoing nationwide uprising against racial injustice and police brutality.
"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."
—Kristi Graunke, ACLU of North Carolina
"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 groups argued in the lawsuit that the new restriction violates protesters' constitutional rights.
"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," reads the suit.
The ordinance was issued on June 26, a day after Graham Mayor Jerry Peterman issued an executive order to shut down protests at the courthouse.
The Alamance County Sheriff's office then announced that the Graham Police Department would no longer be issuing permits for demonstrations of two or more people, a move with the Lawyers' Committee said "effectively bans any protest."
The sheriff's office posted a notice about the new ordinance on Facebook last week, garnering more than 1,000 comments within a day—including many that accused the sheriff of trampling residents' basic rights.
"Pretty sure the right to peaceful assembly is granted by the constitution.. not [Sheriff] Terry Johnson,” one critic wrote.
"First Amendment rights have been taken away," tweeted a protester the day after the ordinance was issued. "Is this America?"
— c.c. leonard (@theccleonard) June 27, 2020
Days later, several people gathered in Graham despite the order, holding signs reading "Black Lives Matter" as passing drivers honked in support.
— Tammy Grubb (@TammyGrubb) July 1, 2020
"The Confederate monument in Graham's town square represents the 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, in a statement Friday. "While the community is trying to reckon with its own racist history in the midst of police violence against Black citizens across the country and in Alamance County, the sheriff and police are restricting the people’s basic rights to protest white supremacy."
Tenae Turner, a plaintiff who had planned to protest at the courthouse, said she had been denied the right to advocate "for equally representative government."
"I sought to gather with others to express support for Black lives," said Turner. "It sends a clear message that racist monuments are valued more highly than Black lives and our constitutional rights."