Federal judge blocks law that would prohibit protests at state-owned buildings

Published: Jun. 29, 2023 at 8:56 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The State Capitol, Governor’s Mansion, and other state-owned facilities are still fair game for protests.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate issued a preliminary injunction blocking a controversial portion of S.B. 2343 from taking effect.

The section in question would have required protesters to obtain permission from the chief of Capitol Police or the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety prior to demonstrating in front of state-owned buildings.

Wingate said the provision likely would have had a chilling effect on free speech and criticized the law for being too “constitutionally vague.”

“It is not clothed with any rules or regulations which give directions to the two persons who have the power to restrict or deny speech,” he said. “Seemingly, they are left to their own devices. Seemingly, they’re left to their own consciences... It is naked.”

Wingate told parties the injunction would be in place while the lawsuit challenging 2343 continues. The judge also said he would consider revisiting the order if the state draws up rules and regulations governing the law within a “reasonable time.”

“The court is not going to have the public waiting forever,” he said. “In the meantime, the court thinks it’s too dangerous to deny the plaintiff’s motion for injunctive relief.”

Rukia Lumumba, executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, is one of the plaintiffs. She says the judge’s ruling is a “huge relief.”

“Many of the people that we work with... community members that are vocal are those that would have been significantly impacted by possible arrests,” she said. “This is a big win.”

Attorney Paloma Wu stands outside the federal courthouse with her clients and co-counsel after...
Attorney Paloma Wu stands outside the federal courthouse with her clients and co-counsel after a judge grants a preliminary injunction blocking a portion of S.B. 2343 from going into effect.(WLBT)

Lawmakers approved S.B. 2343 during the 2023 legislative session. The bill was signed by Gov. Tate Reeves on April 21.

Under the measure, organizers would have to obtain written approval before any “event” that takes place on streets or sidewalks adjacent to state-owned buildings.

However, the legislation did not include what types of events would be allowed and left it up to the Department of Public Safety to put those rules in place.

Chad Williams, who represents Commissioner Sean Tindell and Chief Bo Luckey, said the court should hold off on an injunction until those rules are drawn up.

“Nothing happens until Commissioner Tindell promulgates the regulations to make 2343 happen,” he said. “That hasn’t happened. [The court] can’t build a preliminary injunction on speculation.”

2343 was slated to take effect on July 1. However, he said the rules likely would not be set until after August 1.

Williams, meanwhile, argued that Tindell declared he would not enforce the law until the rules were official and in light of that, a court-ordered injunction would be “redundant.”

Paloma Wu, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, disagreed.

“Neither counsel nor the court can read into the statute what is not there,” she said. “The law doesn’t say what the state says it does.”

Wu argued her clients’ free speech had already been impacted by the bill’s passage, saying it’s difficult to organize events not knowing what provisions would govern them.

Plaintiffs include a number of activist groups, including the Jackson Undivided Coalition, Mississippi Votes, the People’s Advocacy Institute, the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, and Black Voters Matter.

Wingate asked if Wu’s clients would be open to an injunction that would run through August 1, once 2343′s rules are on file.

Wu said they would not.

“The injury sustained by the plaintiffs continues,” she said. “A preliminary injunction, if issued, should be in effect until further order of the court.”

Wingate explained he had to consider several factors when determining whether he could block the law, including if the petitioners would prevail in the case and if they would suffer “irreparable harm” if the court denied relief.

“The loss of First Amendment freedom, for even a limited period of time, results in irreparable harm,” he said. “At this point, the court has to hold that a statute such as [the one] discussed has a chilling effect on free speech.”

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