University of Georgia student Mallory Harris, center, speaks Feb. 21 during the Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day rally at Liberty Plaza, across from the state Capitol in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Federal lawsuit targets Georgia policy blocking gun control protest

The organizers of a protest against gun violence filed a federal lawsuit Monday targeting a Georgia policy that restricted them from using a plaza designed to host massive rallies because they don’t have approval from one of the state’s top elected officials.

The lawsuit says a state policy that requires approval from one of Georgia’s seven constitutional officers to use Liberty Plaza for weekend or after-hours events violates First Amendment rights and gives the governor “complete, unbridled and unreviewable discretion” to pick which rallies are held at the park.

The complaint, filed by Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, comes weeks after state officials manually cut power to a Moms Demand Action gun control rally because they said the organization hadn’t properly filed for a permit. The organizers and politicians resorted to using loudspeakers to address the more than 1,500 people who gathered at the $4.4 million plaza.

Oliver filed the lawsuit after Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Building Authority rejected her initial request to allow “March for Our Lives” organizers to gather for a Saturday event at Liberty Plaza. She said the new guidelines that require one of Georgia’s statewide officers — currently all Republicans — is “bad management” and unconstitutional.

Deal initially denied her request to sponsor the rally. Other statewide officers are unlikely to approve an event for gun control, particularly after this month’s vote in the Legislature to reject a tax break for Delta Air Lines after it cut ties with the National Rifle Association.

As word of the litigation spread Monday, Deal’s office offered to sponsor the protest if organizers could pay for security costs, and the governor directed Steve Stancil of the Georgia Building Authority to find a way to accommodate the march “while maintaining the integrity of the permitting process.”

That development had Oliver hopeful there was “room for a resolution,” though she said the state’s guidelines must still be revised.

Stancil said he was trying to stick to the state’s policy. In an interview, he said he was “shocked and disappointed” to learn about the lawsuit, and that at a meeting last week he asked the protest’s organizers to comply with the same conditions that were accepted last year by the leaders of the Women’s March.

They were told to provide a receipt showing they had enough portable toilets to service the crowd and to write a check in advance to the state Department of Public Safety, he said.

“I thought we had this buttoned up last week,” Stancil said.

The governor’s office, meanwhile, scrambled to reach an accord. Deal’s top aide, Chris Riley, said on Twitter that the state’s decision to change the guidelines in October boiled down to security costs, including overtime for law enforcement officers.

After the suit was filed, Riley sent a second tweet detailing past damages to the site, along with an invitation for suggestions:

“The first weekend following the opening of Liberty Plaza, the state made the decision to keep it open 24-7, unfortunately we suffered over $10k worth of damages. If there is a better idea, better process, @GovernorDeal is open! We can find a way for this work!”

‘Business hours’

The March 24 rally is one of dozens scheduled across the nation spearheaded by students who survived the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school, and the Atlanta offshoot is getting help from the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice.

Janel Green, who heads the alliance, said the students wanted to model the rally after the Atlanta Women’s March that her organization helped organize. That event, which drew tens of thousands, started at the Center for Civil and Human Rights and ended at Liberty Plaza.

She said she followed the same steps she took when she applied for the Women’s March permit for last year’s event but was “shocked” when she was told she now needed approval from one of Georgia’s seven statewide constitutional officers to move forward.

“In order to be able to utilize our free speech, we have to get one of those seven individuals to sign off on it,” said Green, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Free speech at our state’s Capitol shouldn’t be limited to business hours on Monday through Friday.”

First Amendment groups said the state’s rules smack of hypocrisy. The plaza opened in June 2015 as a “front door” for the Georgia Capitol to hold large events, such as press conferences and protests, that once overflowed from the steps of the statehouse to busy streets.

The finished product features a grassy oval center surrounded by pavement and wide steps for sitting. It includes two 1950s-era presents: a replica of the Liberty Bell donated to the state by the Truman administration and a miniature Statue of Liberty given by the Boy Scouts of America in 1951.

“You can’t require the government to approve a protest against it,” said Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “That’s unconstitutional.”

“Liberty Plaza was designed as a gathering place for precisely this reason,” he added. “To put these restrictions on peaceful public gatherings would have the reverse effect. It’s just not a smart approach.”

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Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this article.