The Mississippi Center for Justice and a host of organizations are suing a Mississippi agency’s new power to restrict protest in Jackson. The constraints are set to kick in next month with the implementation of Senate Bill 2343, a bill written and supported primarily by white legislators to tamp down protest in the state’s largest majority-Black city.
The new rule forces would-be demonstrators to get written permission from the Capitol Police chief or the Department of Public Safety commissioner to protest in or near a city building occupied by a state government body. The law only applies to state buildings inside the city of Jackson, however.
Protesters already must get a permit from the city of Jackson to occupy sidewalks and roads with demonstrations that could impede access to public space. However, the new rule undermines the city of Jackson’s authority and gives two white men, Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell or Capitol Police Chief Bo Luckey, the power to deny permits that city officials approve.
Plaintiffs argue that the new rule is far too surgical to be without motive. “The written permission requirement appears to restrict speech next to state government buildings only in Jackson, and not next to state government buildings anywhere else in Mississippi,” the suit argues. Sen. Joey Fillingane, who submitted the bill creating the rule this year, did not apply his rule to majority-white cities in Madison or Desoto County, for example, just Jackson. It doesn’t even apply to sidewalks and streets in other parts of Jackson, which suggests that protests in front of, say, an abortion clinic or a drag show can continue unabated.
Plaintiffs argue that recent protests of state government overreach have not resulted in any violence or destruction and have been peaceful. But they have attracted unwanted press attention to the state’s effort to impose unelected judges and an unaccountable police force on the city’s population. They also warn that the new law is setting a precedent that harkens back to the state’s ugly days of suppression in the 1960s, when state police arrested freedom riders and detained them in the harsh conditions of Parchman prison.
The new rule could work in destructive tandem with a second law allowing arrested protestors to be placed in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, rather than be detained in a city jail. That law, House Bill 1020, was itself the target of protest during the 2023 legislative session. In addition to expanding the Capitol Complex Improvement District and installing unelected judges to prosecute residents, the very real possibility of MDOC detention “illustrates the elevated burdens imposed upon those who demonstrate against state government at state-owned and occupied properties,” say plaintiffs.
Critics say the whole point of protesting in and beside state government buildings is to send a message to state officials so the public will know a message is being aimed specifically at officials. But the new law will have a chilling effect thanks to the combined threat of “arrest, prosecution, conviction and imprisonment, possibly in a state prison.” This, say plaintiffs, amounts to a violation of the First Amendment to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. It also represents a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, since the law only imposes additional burdens on certain streets and sidewalks.
Arekia Bennett-Scott, executive director of Mississippi Votes, said she was concerned that if her organization refused to comply with the requirement and did not obtain written permission and still exercised the right to protest, “some or all of those who participate, including me, will be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of a crime related to not complying.” She told the court that she and her group could face prosecution in the new CCID court and, if convicted, be sent to prison.
Rukia Lumumba, executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute and a founding member of the JXN Undivided Coalition, said she also feared arrest, prosecution, and conviction for protesting without written permission, but she added that “Some of PAI’s subsidiary and partner organizations are staffed by people under correctional supervision,” and that these individuals are unlikely to engage in protest if required to notify the State. The same, she said, “is true for other individual and organizational members of the Coalition.”
“I believe that our members and supporters have the right to protest peacefully, in accordance with all laws, and protest anonymously if they wish,” Lumumba argued.
Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell did not return calls for comment. His agency has not yet filed court statements connected to the suit.