Students and their parents arrive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Lannis Waters /The Palm Beach Post)

Georgia governor OKs gun rally after lawsuit targeted event policy

Gov. Nathan Deal agreed Tuesday to allow a national gun safety rally to be held at a plaza on statehouse grounds after organizers filed a lawsuit when their initial request to hold the event there was blocked.

The governor sent state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver a letter agreeing to sponsor the “March for Our Lives” event as long as organizers pay for security costs. He also said his decision does not “constitute an endorsement of the views or positions of any individual or organization attending the event.”

The negotiations came after Oliver and other organizers of the protest filed a federal lawsuit targeting a policy that requires one of Georgia’s constitutional officers to approve weekend or after-hours events at Liberty Plaza.

The complaint contends that requiring one of the state’s constitutional officers — currently all Republicans — to sign off on a protest against the government violates First Amendment rights and demands the policy be rewritten. State officials say the guidelines were aimed at cutting overtime costs for security officers.

Thousands of people are expected to rally March 24 in downtown Atlanta for the “March for Our Lives” rally, one of dozens scheduled across the nation spearheaded by students who survived the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

A group of 166 alumni of the high school who live in Georgia penned an open letter to the governor urging him to speedily resolve the dispute over Liberty Plaza, a $4.4 million park designed to host large rallies and protests that in the past spilled into the streets next to the state Capitol.

“Governor Deal, do you really want to waste taxpayer money fighting a lawsuit for a march that supports reducing gun violence in schools?” the letter states. “Shouldn’t the issue of mitigating risk of classroom shootings be one that Georgia is proud to not just support, but to lead on?”

Earlier Tuesday, state School Superintendent Richard Woods also agreed to approve the event, though his office said he made clear to student organizers that his decision is not an endorsement of the rally but “instead a belief in the constitutional right of citizens to peacefully assemble.”

He also called for changes to the state policy requiring a constitutional officer to sponsor events at Liberty Plaza for weekend or after-hours events “as it could be misconstrued as a political endorsement.”

Oliver said she’s grateful the permit was approved and hopeful an “efficient resolution” to the litigation is coming soon. The governor’s office said he was “pleased to reach a solution” to the permitting flap.

Steve Stancil, the head of the Georgia Building Authority, said earlier that he was trying to stick to the state’s policy and that he was “shocked” to learn about the lawsuit. He provided emails from January detailing his agency’s requests that organizers line up security for the event.

The Stoneman Douglas alumni group, meanwhile, ratcheted up the pressure on state officials. The appeal to Deal said the group includes Democrats and Republicans from across the state who were embarrassed to learn that the rally’s organizers faced hurdles in obtaining permits.

“Governor Deal, the issue of gun violence is without a doubt complicated,” the letter states. “But, fortunately for you, the issue of providing a march permit is not.”

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