Ga. state senator, activists sue over arrests during protest

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Sen. Nikema Williams and others filed suit Tuesday over their arrests during a 2018 protest inside the Georgia Capitol, saying police used an unconstitutional law to detain them.

The lawsuit, filed against Georgia Department of Public Safety officers, asks a federal judge to bar further use of the law.

The Atlanta Democrat, who is running for the late-U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ seat in Congress, was arrested with activist Mary Hooks and 13 others on Nov. 13, 2018.

They gathered in the Capitol rotunda to urge officials to tally all absentee and provisional ballots before certifying Brian Kemp as the winner of the governor’s race against Stacey Abrams. Kemp, who resisted calls to resign his position as Georgia’s top elections official during the contest, had been accused by Abrams of using voter suppression tactics to win, which he denied.

The state law in question says it is illegal to “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.”

The plaintiffs say the law is overly broad and violates the First Amendment because it doesn’t require proof of intent to disrupt or proof that the legislative session was actually disrupted.

In 2006, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a similar law, intended to bar disruption of public meetings, was unconstitutionally vague, siding with two people who were arrested during a Valdosta City Council meeting.

The Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The 2018 protest was organized by a local Black Lives Matter group and drew about 100 people. Authorities said the arrests were made after attendees ignored orders to disperse.

“I stood peacefully next to my constituents because they wanted their voices to be heard, and now I’m being arrested," Williams said that day as she was led away with zip ties around her wrists.

Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, comes more than a year after charges against all protesters were dropped. Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan, whose office handled the senator’s charges, said he declined to prosecute her because the arrest served as enough punishment. Fulton County Solicitor General Keith E. Gammage, who handled the cases against the other protesters, said there was not enough evidence to convict them of a crime.

Williams and the other plaintiffs’ attorneys say the Capitol rotunda has long been used for protests and the one in question wasn’t improper.

“Surely, at the core of free speech is the right of citizens to speak their minds about voter suppression in the seat of their own state government,” said Gerry Weber, senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Our clients simply want the protection of a court order so that they can voice their concerns about voting rights without fearing unconstitutional arrests.”

State Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, an attorney for Williams and another protester arrested that day, said the plaintiffs plan to take the lawsuit “as far as we have to to get justice.” Dreyer said the law should be struck down.

“At the point they’re using it to stifle debate, specifically debate about counting every vote, then it’s time to revisit this statute with the courts,” he said.