Kessler sues Charlottesville over denial of permit for Unite the Right anniversary rally

The city previously denied the permit application and said the event would present a danger to public safety

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Jason Kessler pictured at a press conference he attempted to hold on Aug. 13, 2017, the day after the Unite the Right rally. 

Anna Higgins | Cavalier Daily

Jason Kessler, a local white nationalist and organizer of the deadly Unite the Right rally last August, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the City of Charlottesville and City Manager Maurice Jones for denying him a permit for a Unite the Right anniversary rally planned for Aug. 11 and 12, 2018. Kessler is seeking injunctive action to force the City to allow the protest, as well as compensatory damages and a judgement that declares the City violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights — specifically, his rights to free speech, assembly and petition.

The demonstration Kessler is planning, according to his application to the City, is a “rally against government civil rights abuse and failure to follow security plans for political dissidents.” He noted the protest would oppose the City Council’s vote to remove the Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues from Emancipation and Justice parks. The rally would also oppose Council’s vote to rename Emancipation and Justice parks, formerly, Lee and Jackson Parks. Council is currently soliciting suggestions for another name change for the parks, though Lee Park, Jackson Park, Emancipation Park and Justice Park will not be accepted in the Council’s deliberations

Last summer’s Unite the Right rally, which attracted white nationalists from around the country, was also held in response to the decision to remove the Lee statue. The event turned deadly when police say rally attendee James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing local resident Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Two state troopers, who had been assisting law enforcement efforts on Aug. 12, were killed in a helicopter crash in Albemarle County the same day. 

Kessler sent an application to the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Department Nov. 27 for a special event permit. He estimated 400 people would come to the two-day protest from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Aug. 11 and 12 at Emancipation Park. In the application, Kessler requested the City send police to “keep opposing sides separate” and “leave demonstrators a clear path into event without threat of violence.”

The lawsuit comes as the City is fighting another legal battle over its handling of the statues’ removal. A lawsuit was originally filed last March against the legality of the Council’s vote to remove the Lee statue. Months after the suit was filed, Council voted unanimously to remove the Jackson statue. 

After the Unite the Right rally, City Council authorized the covering of both statues — which were not removed due to the pending lawsuit — with tarps as a mourning measure. Most recently, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore ruled that shroudings placed over the Lee and Jackson statues needed to be removed.

Jones sent Kessler a letter Dec. 11 denying his application for three potential violations of the City’s special events regulations. First, Jones said the rally presents a danger to public safety and would have an excessive cost to the City. The letter also says the City cannot reasonably remove counterprotestors from the event, nor can Emancipation Park be used prior to 1 p.m. on Sundays. Finally, Jones wrote no person or entity was willing to accept responsibility for the group’s adherence to City special events regulations, so the City has no means for holding that person accountable. 

The City also denied permits to four other people who applied to hold events in downtown parks on Aug. 11 and 12, 2018.

According to the lawsuit, Kessler wrote back Dec. 16 saying he’s willing to change the hours of the protest. Kessler followed up via attorney Elmer Woodard Jan. 29 asking what conditions must be met in order for the rally to proceed. Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson responded Feb. 23 repeating the reasons for the permit denial and pointing Kessler to the City’s special events regulations.

Kessler is seeking a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction against the city, which could force the approval of Kessler’s permit. He’s also seeking compensatory damages, attorney fees and a judgement declaring the City violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. 

The suit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

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