Members of the crowd listens as those affected by the ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Miss. share their experience with the issue during a Moral Monday rally, held by the Poor People’s Campaign, outside of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

A federal lawsuit is challenging restrictions on protests held on public ways next to state government buildings in Jackson. 

The restrictions are under Senate Bill 2343, which is set to go into effect July 1. Under that law, any event on the sidewalk or streets next to state-owned or -occupied buildings would require prior written authorization from Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell or Capitol Police Chief Bo Luckey. 

“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 JXN Undivided Coalition said in a Monday statement. “We should not have to risk arrest and imprisonment for exercising our constitutional rights, including freedom of speech and equal protection under the law.”

The lawsuit was filed Saturday by local community organizers and groups such as the JXN Undivided Coalition, Mississippi Votes, People’s Advocacy Institute, Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign and  Black Voters Matter. They are represented by the Mississippi Center for Justice and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the law’s requirement for written permission from the state officials is unlawful prior restraint under the First Amendment and it also violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

The plaintiffs are also asking for declaratory relief and a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent SB 2343 from going into effect.

Tindell and Luckey are defendants in the lawsuit. Under the law, they are designated as the ones to approve events because they are in charge of the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which is where the governmental buildings are located. 

A spokesperson from the Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond for comment Monday and did not say whether the department has reviewed the lawsuit. 

MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the city of Jackson already requires permits for events held on city sidewalks and streets that might affect access to public space, and those ordinances already carry penalties for failure to comply. 

Additional permission is another example of lawmakers disregarding Jackson’s autonomy, he said. 

If SB 2343 goes into effect, Tindell and Luckey will have the ability to veto protests, including those against the actions of state government and officials, according to the JXN Undivided Coalition.

“This chills protected speech,” said Paloma Wu, who is representing the plaintiffs from the Mississippi Center for Justice, in a statement. 

State-run institutions – Capitol Police and the Capitol Complex Improvement District court – rather than local institutions would be responsible for arrests, prosecution and conviction of people who protest by any state-owned or occupied property without prior permission, according to the lawsuit complaint. 

A misdemeanor conviction within the district would carry prison time at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility rather than jail time, which is possible through House Bill 1020 – a piece of legislation also being challenged in court. 

During recent protests, community members have spoken out about that law’s creation of a separate court system within Jackson and the expansion of authority of the Department of Public Safety and Capitol Police. 

Organizers said they plan to hold protests at the Capitol, Mississippi Supreme Court, the Governor’s Mansion and near other government buildings next month, according to the complaint. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.