US judge temporarily blocks Mississippi law on state police permits for some protests

Jun 29, 2023, 3:55 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge Thursday temporarily blocked a new Mississippi law that requires permission from state police for protests or other gatherings near state government buildings in the capital city of Jackson.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate said the law is vague and could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, particularly for people who want to demonstrate against government actions.

“It is clear that this statute is a prior restraint on speech,” Wingate said.

Earlier this year, the majority-white and Republican-led Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to require the state-issued permits for protests in parts of Jackson, which is majority-Black and governed by Democrats.

Legislators also passed a separate bill expanding the role of the state-run Capitol Police department inside the city, creating a new court inside part of Jackson with a judge appointed by the state Supreme Court chief justice, and authorizing the chief justice to appoint four additional judges to work with the four elected circuit court judges in Hinds County, where Jackson is located.

Hinds County is also majority-Black and governed by Democrats. Most Mississippi judges are elected.

Supporters of the bills said they were trying to strengthen safety in Jackson, which has a population of about 150,000 and has had more than 100 homicides for each of the past three years. Opponents said the bills undermine local self-governance.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bills, and most of the changes were supposed to become law Saturday.

Wingate on Thursday confirmed that he has dismissed Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph from a lawsuit that the NAACP filed to challenge the law on policing and courts. Wingate issued an order last month temporarily preventing most of that law from taking effect on Saturday.

The law on protests requires the state Department of Public Safety to develop regulations for the type of information that protest sponsors would need to provide and what standards the department would use in deciding whether to issue permits.

Wingate said Thursday that because such regulations have not been set, “some brave soul … could risk the onset of criminal penalties” for protesting without a state permit. He said the department could draft regulations, which would take several weeks, and could then ask him to reconsider whether the law can take effect.

Protests near downtown Jackson’s state government buildings in the past year included January, February and March rallies against the courts and policing legislation. The Poor People’s Campaign held protested outside the Governor’s Mansion last fall against what organizers said was the state’s inadequate investment in Jackson’s struggling water system.

People planning events in downtown Jackson are already required to obtain a city-issued permit — the same 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.

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US judge temporarily blocks Mississippi law on state police permits for some protests