Florence violated free speech rights of protesters after George Floyd’s death, lawsuit alleges

The Confederate monument outside the Lauderdale County Courthouse. Jonece Starr Dunigan Jonece Starr DuniganJonece Starr Dunigan

By William Thornton 

A social justice group that conducted more than 150 protests in Florence two years ago is suing the city and Police Chief Ron Tyler over ordinances it says are vague and meant to stifle free speech.

Project Say Something, a group founded in 2014, and its founder Camille Bennett, filed the 30-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court this week.

The group says by its own count it staged a protest five days a week in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, totaling about 160 to 175 times in one year.

Those protests were conducted on public sidewalks in the area of the Lauderdale County courthouse, in parks and on sidewalks in Florence’s downtown business district near a Confederate monument.

According to the suit, the city used the two ordinances to curtail the group’s activity, saying that demonstrations fell under the city’s parade ordinance, requiring a permit.

Instead, the group was relocated to a “protest zone” at the intersection of Court Street and Tennessee Street. If the group wanted its intended audience to hear their message, the suit says, it might run afoul of the city’s noise ordinance.

The suit contends that the city’s noise and parade ordinances violate the group’s First Amendment rights of speech and assembly.

“The City’s law enforcement officers have given inconsistent guidance to Plaintiffs on how they can comply with the ordinances, forcing them to conduct silent protests for fear of breaking the law,” the suit states.

“Plaintiffs’ protests have been consistently non-violent, have never obstructed pedestrian or vehicle traffic, and have never prevented ingress or egress to any public or privately owned building.”

The group contends that the parade ordinance does not apply to stationary protests.

In addition, the suit claims that the city told the group, when it requested a street blocked off for protests, that it would require a $360 police protection fee per day.

Instead, the group estimates it has paid about $4,100 to date to hire private security.

Attempts to reach city officials for comment were not immediately successful.