Political Insider

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Yes, think how strange it sounds: Permission granted to assemble, speak freely at Liberty Plaza

Protests involving large numbers of people, by and large, do not happen spontaneously. Mass events require planning and coordination, and that includes conversations with the proper governing authorities.

On Jan. 21, 2017, in reaction to the previous day’s inauguration of President Donald Trump, tens of thousands of women (and more than a few men) marched through the streets of Atlanta and into Liberty Plaza, a taxpayer-funded space built to serve as a venue for free speech — and named accordingly.

Organizers for the Atlanta version of the Women’s March began their email conversations with state authorities at least a week in advance. Activists provided proof that a contract with a provider of portable toilets had been consummated. Ten would be placed in a straight row on the east side.

Twenty separate checks of $210 each had been cut for the state troopers who would be working overtime to maintain order. In the end, demonstrators were peaceful. The event concluded without incident or any damage to property.

Last week, the another group of activists reached out to state officials to begin planning for a Saturday, March 24, rally to protest mass gun violence in the nation’s schools, and the inability or unwillingness of public officials to address the issue.

Steve Stancil, the executive director of the Georgia Building Authority and the man in charge of the state Capitol physical plant, thought the routine had been established. Requirements for toilets and off-duty police protection were agreed upon. “I thought we had this buttoned up,” he said.

Except that in February 2017, weeks after the anti-Trump protest that had swamped the state Capitol, new guidelines for the use of Liberty Plaza were adopted by GBA, including this:

“Requests for an event to be held in Liberty Plaza after normal business hours… will not be approved unless such event is: a) being held or hosted by a constitutional officer of the State of Georgia; and b) the purpose for such event is of statewide significance and non-partisan based.”

The governor, the guidelines state, retains final authority over what topics have statewide significance, and what is considered non-partisan.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, delivered a hand-written note to Gov. Nathan Deal, asking for his sponsorship. Last Friday, via his lawyer, the governor refused, balking at the fact that he would be officially “hosting” the event.

Deal would say later that he was concerned about safety, resources and staffing.” But there was also the fact that this wouldn’t exactly be an NRA-sponsored event. Far from it.

So for the last four days, we have chewed over a situation in which eight constitutional officers – all Republican, all white men – can control the topic of conversation in a public free speech zone on a Saturday morning. (Sorry, House Speaker David Ralston, you’re not one of them.)

A federal lawsuit was filed by rally organizers, raising the stakes.

On Tuesday afternoon, the irony was palpable in Room 132 of the Capitol, which has a fine, ground-floor view of Liberty Plaza. A House Judiciary subcommittee was holding a hearing on Senate Bill 339. Its author, William Ligon of Brunswick, thinks the First Amendment rights of conservative students on public university campuses in Georgia are at risk.

“One of your purposes for being there is to be challenged, and to listen to views you may not agree with,” Ligon said. This in the basement of a state Capitol, which was designed as a place where ideas can be challenged, and different views might be aired.

SB 339 would allow “any student” to invite a speaker onto campus. And would require university officials to punish students who attempt to shout that speaker down. Think Milo Yiannopoulos, of Breitbart.com fame.

Liberty Plaza rules will not do for UGA, Georgia Tech, or any other campus. Which isn’t something that Ligon actually said, but I thought.

A lawyer for the Board of Regents testified that the university system had recently reviewed its First Amendment policies, and liked what they have in place now, thank you. Nonetheless, SB 339 was passed out of committee, with a single dissent from state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.

At the same time, the Liberty Plaza drama began to resolve itself, the result of two days of phone calls and tete-a-tetes twixt important parties.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods agreed to serve as formal host of the Saturday anti-gun violence rally. As a spokeswoman made clear: “His signature is not an endorsement of, or a signal of agreement with, any political view, but instead a belief in the constitutional right of citizens to peacefully assemble.”

(To the Georgia high school student who plans to participate in Wednesday’s 17-minute walk-out to protest adult inaction on gun violence: You have my permission to clip out the preceding paragraph and present Mr. Woods’ testimonial in favor of the First Amendment to your principal.)

But at the state Capitol, it doesn’t do for a school superintendent to outshine a governor.

After much negotiating, principally between Oliver, a state lawmaker who can occasionally be found on the law school faculty at Emory University, and Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff and pre-eminent fixer, a strategic retreat was engineered.

In a letter hand-delivered to Oliver, the governor thanked the Decatur lawmaker for underlining, a day earlier, rally organizers’ previously mentioned willingness to cover all sanitation and security expenses.

In return: “I had directed my staff to make all efforts to ensure the event could be held at Liberty Plaza, including, but not limited to, my willingness to ‘host, the event,” Deal wrote. “Please be aware, though, that my willingness, as a Constitutional Officer, to ‘host’ the event does not constitute an endorsement.”

The letter, by the way, makes no mention of the words “gun” or “schools.”

We are fortunate that the Liberty Plaza dispute has given all parties a giant, goose-bumping case of the willies. The constitutionality of the state’s policy that governs the free-speech arena is highly questionable, but the politics of the matter are worse.

As currently written, eight constitutional officers can either be the State Capitol Censors or the Official Guardians of the First Amendment. The former will make you an instant target — perhaps even Mr. Ligon will take an interest and file a bill. If the latter, one must become used to serving as “host” for many a cause that one doesn’t like. Ultimately, unkind people will be remove the quotation marks.

Something will have to change: Either the rules, or the name of Liberty Plaza. We’re betting on the rules.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.