RISE St James Wins Lawsuit Against Gramercy, LA

Photo Source: “Cancer alley” by GinesAlberto | License

In a win for free speech, the town of Gramercy – located in St. James Parish – agreed to change its requirement that protest groups pay a $10,000 bond in order to secure a permit as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by environmental activist group RISE St. James. In addition, Gramercy must pay RISE $45,000 in legal fees and damages of $100 by Jan. 1.

For two years Tulane University’s First Amendment Law Clinic, providing representation for the group, has argued that the town’s bond requirement was a violation of the First Amendment on the grounds that the high cost of the bond only served to limit demonstrations by smaller groups, and didn’t match any administrative costs incurred by the town. In addition, the measure allowed for broad discretion by town leaders, allowing them to simply deny permits to any group they didn’t agree with.

This week, the town’s Board of Aldermen approved changes to the parade and demonstration ordinance, allowing exceptions for nonprofit organizations, groups in good standing, and individuals who can provide proof that they are unable to afford the bond payment.

“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 lawsuit began when the town’s bond requirement prevented RISE St. James from holding a peaceful march opposing a constitutional amendment allowing industrial plants and other companies to opt out of property taxes and instead pay fees set by local governments. The group instead obtained a permit and marched without incident in the neighboring community of Lutcher. Louisiana voters rejected the proposed amendment in 2020.

“Our struggle for environmental justice is not possible if we can’t raise our voices and speak out,” said RISE St. James founder and president Sharon Lavigne. “We brought this lawsuit because we refuse to be silenced. The lives of our loved ones are at stake.

RISE St. James is one of several grassroots organizations pushing back against industrial expansion in what has become known as Lousiana’s Cancer Alley. Earlier this year, the group claimed a victory when Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court reversed the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to issue air permits to Formosa Plastics. The decision halted the company’s plant to build a proposed petrochemical complex in St. James Parish.

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