Four citizens sue Georgia city over permit-fee ordinance

Tuesday, February 9, 1999

Four citizens of Elijay, Ga., are suing the city and its mayor in federal court over an ordinance requiring groups of more than three people to obtain a permit and pay a fee in order to assemble on public sidewalks.

Two couples — Charles and Linda Parks and Patricia and Jack Alvis — contend in their suit filed last week that the law infringes on their free-speech and free-assembly rights by mandating that they apply every time they and others want to distribute literature or hold a sign on a public sidewalk.

The challenged ordinance, which was passed in May 1998, provides that “every private organization or group of private citizens who wishes to use public property or public roads within the City of Elijay for private purposes in holding a parade, assembly, demonstration … distribution of literature … is hereby required to have a permit from the City prior to engaging in any such activity.”

Another section of the ordinance defines a private organization as any “organized group of individuals more than three (3) in number, acting as a unit.”

The ordinance provides for a $75 permit-application fee and empowers the mayor to serve as an “administrator” who may cancel a permit for several reasons, including “convenience to the general public.”

The plaintiffs describe themselves in their lawsuit as “Christians [who] … have sincerely held religious beliefs in the sanctity of human life and the desire to express their religious, pro-life, and political beliefs through the peaceful display of signs on public sidewalks and through the distribution of literature.”

The two couples first questioned the constitutionality of the ordinance after learning that they would need a permit to hold an event last October known as the “Life Chain,” in which individuals stand on public sidewalks holding signs bearing such messages as “Abortion Kills Children.”

For six years previous, city officials had never required the plaintiffs to obtain a permit for Life Chain, an event the couples say has always been peaceful and never required any police services.

They filed suit on Feb. 5, about a week after Charles Parks was told by a city employee that he and three others must obtain a permit in order to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

In Parks v. City of Elijay, the challengers argue that “the prior application process prohibits spontaneous expression on a public sidewalk of four or more individuals desiring to pass out literature.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based civil liberties legal defense organization.

Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, said in a news release: “Whether city officials realize it or not, the Constitution applies to Elijay, Georgia. It is fundamental that people do not need permission from the government, and they certainly don't need to pay a fee, to peacefully stand on a public sidewalk and proclaim a political message.

“The City of Elijay cannot license the speech of its citizens,” Staver wrote. “Speech oftentimes needs to be spontaneous. A licensing requirement violates the First Amendment. The ordinance prohibits spontaneous speech.”

Al Hoyle, mayor of Elijay, said he had not yet been served with the lawsuit. “This ordinance is not designed to discourage freedom of speech,” he said. “The ordinance is designed to make city officials aware when something is going to take place so that the police can be alerted.”

Hoyle added that the law is “in no way aimed at the anti-abortion group” and described the $75 permit charge as a “token fee.”