Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic students represented RISE St. James, arguing that Gramercy’s use of a bond requirement for protests was a violation of the First Amendment

Two years of hard work by students of Tulane University’s First Amendment Law Clinic ended in victory this week with a settled lawsuit that paves the way for community activists to assemble, march and protest on the streets of Gramercy, La.

The town, located in St. James Parish, agreed to ease its requirement that protest groups must post a $10,000 bond to secure a permit to demonstrate. Two years ago, the town’s bond requirement prevented RISE St. James, a faith-based advocacy group focused on the environmental impacts of the petrochemical industry along the Mississippi River, from holding a peaceful march opposing a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed industrial plants and other companies to pay fees set by local governments rather than property taxes.

The neighboring community of Lutcher granted the permits and protesters marched there without incident. Louisiana voters went on to reject the amendment in November 2020.

As a part of the settlement, the town’s Board of Aldermen this week approved changes to its parade and demonstration ordinance, allowing exceptions to the bond requirement for nonprofit organizations, groups in good standing with the town, and individuals who can show they can’t afford to pay it.

Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic students represented RISE St. James and handled the case from initial filings through discovery and into settlement, arguing that bond requirement prevented grass-roots environmental group RISE St. James from exercising its constitutional right to assemble. Specifically, the Clinic students argued Gramercy’s use of a bond requirement was a violation of the First Amendment because:

 ●       It made marches and demonstrations available only to those with financial means;

●       The high cost of the bond didn’t match any actual administrative costs incurred by the town; and

●       It granted broad discretion to town leaders to approve or deny permit applications, essentially making free speech subject to vote by elected leaders.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our team’s long fight to remove barriers to people’s right to assemble and share their views,” said Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Clinic. “The residents of Gramercy and St. James Parish now have more opportunity to engage their community on issues that impact everyone.”

The settlement also calls for Gramercy to pay RISE $45,000 for its legal fees and a nominal penalty of $100 by Jan. 1.

“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.”

The New Orleans Tribune

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