Image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Not a kilt wearing band band but an environmental march and a town that was not happy. But they eased their restrictions.

The town of Gramercy has eased restrictions on marches and parades — including a mandatory $10,000 bond — after a local environmentalist group filed a lawsuit saying the rules violated their First Amendment rights to protest. The community activist group, Rise St. James, and its founder, Sharon Lavigne, filed a federal lawsuit against the St. James town and Mayor Steve Nosacka in November 2020. They challenged a $10,000 bond requirement and other rules they claimed claimed impeded their ability to hold marches. The two sides filed a joint settlement in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on Thursday.

The town realized that a non-profit group did not have that kind of money.

On Monday, city aldermen voted to change the rules so that nonprofit organizations, groups in good standing with the town, and people who can show they can’t afford to pay the $10,000 bond won’t have to pay it. Also, parades that don’t have vehicles or animals on the route won’t have to pay the bond. “Our struggle for environmental justice is not possible if we can’t raise our voices and speak out,” said Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of Rise St. James. “We brought this lawsuit because we refuse to be silenced. The lives of our loved ones are at stake.” In addition to the new rules, Rise St. James won nominal damages of $100 under the settlement. The group’s attorneys, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, won fees of $45,000. The town must pay the damages and attorney’s fees no later than Jan. 1, the settlement says.

Rise St. James is a faith based advocacy group.

Rise St. James says it’s as a faith-based advocacy group focused on the environmental impacts of the river region’s petrochemical industry. In the lawsuit, the group claimed the bond and other requirements amounted to an unconstitutional government restraint on their free speech and free assembly rights by making marches only available to those with means. They also contended the $10,000 bond didn’t match actual administrative costs incurred by the town. And they said town leaders had broad discretion to approve or deny permit applications, “essentially making free speech subject to vote by elected leaders.” Town officials argued the permit and bond requirements are designed to protect the town against damage, ensure parades stay on track and were content neutral. At the time, Rise St. James had wanted to march against a then-proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed large plants to cut their own deals to pay local governments in lieu of standard property taxes. Rise St. James officials contended they received conflicting information from Mayor Nosacka about whether the bond would be waived. When the town aldermen did eventually had it imposed the bond, Rise St. James didn’t have enough time to comply before the Oct. 17, 2020, march. On Friday, Nosacka said that he only told Rise St. James that the group could ask the town aldermen to waive the bond but the aldermen decided against it. He added that Rise St. James didn’t apply for the bond until days before the march was to happen and was provided the name of a bonding company.  The mayor added that he was disappointed the town had to reach the settlement but that officials followed the advice of the town’s attorney, trying to meet in the middle with the plaintiffs to resolve the dispute. “Free speech rights appear to be trumping public safety,” the mayor said.

There were a lot of reasons, the mayor said, for the bond.

He argued the bond requirement and other restrictions ensured marchers and parades followed promised routes and protected the town against potential damage. In addition to other changes, the town ordinance doesn’t apply to marchers with 10 or fewer people and allows parades and marches until 9 p.m., both safety concerns for Nosacka.  Court records show settlement talks have been underway at least since the start of January after the plaintiffs suffered a setback in court months earlier. In May 2021, U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey declined to preliminarily block the town law because, the judge found, the First Amendment questions raised in the dispute could only be settled at trial and the moment for the parade had passed.

Rise St. James and the Tulane group had their own concerns.

Among those questions, Rise St. James officials contended the town offered no instructions about how residents could obtain a $10,000 bond — such as that it could be purchased for a few hundred dollars from a private insurer — and uninformed applicants might preemptively decline even to pursue a march because of the $10,000 figure. The plaintiffs also alleged that, as a practical matter, private insurers might serve as a form of secondary restraint on free assembly rights by declining to provide bonds for events espousing controversial speech. Under the terms of the settlement, the town also must give parade and march applicants instructions on how to get a surety bond and contact information for multiple surety companies. Though Rise St. James was not able to march through Gramercy in October 2020, the group had its march in neighboring Lutcher. The proposed constitutional amendment failed at the ballot on Nov. 3, 2020, going down at the polls almost 2 to 1.

Good for the those who won.

Town eases march restrictions due to 1st Amendment
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