CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In a resounding victory for the First Amendment right to free speech, a federal court has ruled that government officials cannot prevent activists who espouse highly controversial views from protesting in a historic downtown park, while allowing counterdemonstrators access to parks in the vicinity. In granting a temporary restraining order that orders the City of Charlottesville to allow Unite the Right to hold an August 12 rally in Emancipation Park, Judge Glen E. Conrad ruled that the disparity in treatment between the two groups suggests that the City’s decision to revoke alt right activist Jason Kessler’s permit was based on the content of his speech. Moreover, the judge concluded that the City’s justification for revoking Kessler’s permit out of a concern that many thousands would attend the rally was based on pure speculation and not evidence.
In filing suit on behalf of Kessler’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute and American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU) argued that City officials violated Kessler’s constitutional rights when they revoked his permit five days before a long-planned August 12 rally in Emancipation Park to protest the removal of a Confederate statue from the park and insisted that the demonstration be moved to a more isolated location over a mile away. Two other groups that oppose Kessler’s message, which have called on thousands of protesters to attend, were granted permits by the City for downtown parks close to Emancipation Park on August 12.
“While this is an important victory for the First Amendment right to free speech, the real battle for understanding and tolerance on both sides of the aisle is only just beginning,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “It is our hope that this weekend’s demonstrations will be nonviolent and characterized by a commitment across the board to truly engaging in a dialogue about race in America that helps us to move that much closer to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.”
On May 30, 2017, Jason Kessler filed an application to hold an August 12 “Unite the Right” free speech rally in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. The permit was granted on June 13. On August 7, just five days before the scheduled demonstration, Kessler was informed that he could not hold the rally unless he moved it to a park a mile away. The City claimed that “many thousands” would be attending the “Unite the Right” event and that the Park could not safely accommodate a crowd of that size. In a complaint filed in federal district court on behalf of “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler, The Rutherford Institute and ACLU allege that the City’s so-called concern for safety due to the number of Unite the Right participants (estimated by the City to be “many thousands”) is unsupported by evidence and is a pretext for allowing the City to discriminate against an unpopular viewpoint while favoring a more popular one. Despite the City’s claim that Emancipation Park could not safely accommodate a crowd of thousands, the Park has historically been the site of many gatherings over the years with crowds of several thousands, including the Cville Pride Festival.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.