RISE St. James wins first amendment lawsuit

Published 8:30 am Saturday, November 19, 2022

GRAMERCY — 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 smooths the way for community activists to assemble, march and protest on the streets of Gramercy.

The town in St. James Parish agreed to ease its requirement that protest groups must post a $10,000 bond to secure a permit to demonstrate – a financial obstacle that prevented grass-roots environmental group RISE St. James from exercising its constitutional right to assemble and protest a ballot initiative that would have granted tax incentives to industrial plants.

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.

The Clinic represented RISE St. James, a faith-based advocacy group focused on the environmental impacts of the petrochemical industry along the Mississippi River.

The town’s bond requirement for permits prevented RISE from holding a peaceful march opposing Amendment 5, which would allow 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.

“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 First Amendment Clinic argued the Gramercy ordinance violated First Amendment rights to speech and assembly 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.

This week’s vote to change the protest ordinance was a welcomed result of efforts by Tulane Law students Jennifer Siew (L’21), Brian Mounce (L’21), Anooshay Asim (L’21), Sarah Hunt-Blackwell (L’22), Erica Powell (L’22), Dayton Dunbar (L’22) and Andrew Perry (L’23). Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic students handled the case from initial filings through discovery and into settlement.

“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.

Louisiana voters rejected Amendment 5 on the Nov. 3, 2020 ballot.