Free speech v. safety: Calls mount for rally permit revocation

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- With less than a month to go before the Aug. 12 "Unite the Right" rally at the Robert E. Lee monument in downtown Charlottesville, some say the event is too dangerous to go on and are calling for city officials to revoke the rally permit.

"...It reasonably appears that the proposed activity will present a danger to public safety," wrote the group Solidarity Cville in a July 17 letter to the members of the Charlottesville City Council that was accompanied by a compilation of what the group describes as threats of violence made on social media and evidence of previous violent behavior by individuals and groups who may attend the rally.

Dozens of Charlottesville residents packed the city council meeting Monday night, many carrying signs saying "Revoke the Permit."

"We can't allow Charlottesville to be used for the the rise of white nationalism," said Mimi Arbeit, a member of the activist group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), in an interview after the meeting.

Among the evidence of danger cited in the Solidarity Cville letter were Facebook comments, including one posted by a prospective attendee and supporter of the monument:

"But I can assure you there will be beatings at the August event. Gloves are off if they attack," wrote the man.

Charlottesville's Standard Operating Procedure for demonstrations and special events says the city can revoke a permit if the event threatens public safety, but legal analyst Scott Goodman said the city can't penalize the organizer of the rally by canceling his event because of what other people say online.

"There would have to be an overwhelming credible threat before they would be able to cancel," he said.

City spokesperson Miriam Dickler declined to comment on how the city might respond to the alleged online threats, but she said the rally sponsor, white rights supporter Jason Kessler, has met the permit requirements, has indemnified the city, and has voluntarily gotten additional liability insurance for the event.

In a phone interview, Kessler said the man who made the allegedly threatening Facebook post won't be at the rally. He said he didn't believe the expected 400 rally attendees would provoke any violence.

Dickler said the city is following the law.

"The United States Constitution guarantees people the right to assemble and to speak, and that's the position of the city," she said.

That's the right approach, said John Whitehead, founder of civil liberties group The Rutherford Institute. The Rutherford Institute was one of four such organizations to sign a letter Monday alleging police aggression after the July 8 Ku Klux Klan rally and urging police and city leaders to de-escalate tensions ahead of the Aug. 12 event.

Whitehead said canceling the Aug. 12 event would bring other problems in the form of new protests and legal woes.

"You'll get a strong First Amendment lawsuit," he warned. "Again, you have to show clear and present danger."

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