JACKSON, Miss. – A new Mississippi law will restrict free speech by requiring people to obtain permission from state law enforcement officials for any protest near the statehouse, Governor's Mansion or other state government buildings in the capital city of Jackson, according to a lawsuit that seeks to block the mandate from taking effect July 1.
“Those who peacefully protest without state government authorization and who are charged with crimes for doing so may be prosecuted and sentenced to prison. This chills protected speech," said the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign and several other organizations.
The federal lawsuit was filed Friday against the two people authorized to issue permits for protests or other events in parts of the majority-Black city: Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell and the chief of the state-run Capitol Police department, Bo Luckey.
“These two officials, both white men, will now have veto authority over protests that have included, and will continue to include, criticisms of their own expanded authority and actions as well as that of other state officials,” said the lawsuit filed by attorneys for the Mississippi Center for Justice and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
The Associated Press sought comment Monday from the Department of Public Safety, and a spokesperson did not immediately respond for the agency or for Capitol Police, which is a division of it.
The new lawsuit is the third one to challenge new Mississippi laws that expand the state's role in courts and policing in Jackson.
Critics say the majority-white and Republican-controlled Legislature passed the laws to take away local autonomy in Jackson and surrounding Hinds County, which are both majority-Black and governed by Democrats. Supporters of the laws say they are trying to control violent crime.
Several protests have been held near state government buildings in downtown Jackson during the past year, including some in January, February and March against the legislation dealing with courts and policing. The Poor People's Campaign held events on a street outside the Governor's Mansion last fall to protest what organizers said was the state's inadequate investment in Jackson's struggling water system.
People planning protests or other events in downtown Jackson are already required to obtain a city-issued permit — the same local procedure used in many other parts of the state. The lawsuit said people will need permission from both the city and the state for protests or events in parts of Jackson, but state permission is not required for protests or events near state government buildings elsewhere in Mississippi.
One of the plaintiffs, JXN Undivided Coalition, said in a statement Monday that its members “have for years engaged in the deeply American tradition of peacefully gathering on public property to convey to elected officials what matters most to us," including voting rights and self-determination for Jackson residents.
“We have spoken, and the state has responded with a sweeping prohibition of speech next to properties in Jackson occupied by state officials absent prior authorization," the coalition said.