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Kessler v. City of Charlottesville

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

August 11, 2017

JASON KESSLER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad United States District Judge.

         On August 10, 2017, Jason Kessler filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Charlottesville, Virginia ("the City") and Maurice Jones, the City Manager. The action stems from the eleventh-hour decision to revoke a permit previously issued by the City, which granted Kessler the right to hold a demonstration in Emancipation Park on August 12, 2017. Kessler claims that the City's decision to revoke the permit abridges his freedom of speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. He has moved to preliminarily enjoin the defendants from interfering with the planned demonstration. The court held a hearing on the motion on August 11, 2017. For the following reasons, the motion will be granted.

         Background

         On May 30, 2017, Kessler applied for a permit to conduct a demonstration in Emancipation Park ("the Park") in the City of Charlottesville. Kessler intends to voice his opposition to the City's decision to rename the Park, which was previously known as Lee Park, and its plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the Park. On June 13, 2017, the defendants granted Kessler a permit to conduct a demonstration on August 12, 2017. In the following weeks, the defendants granted organizations, which oppose Kessler's message, permits to counter-protest in other public parks a few blocks away from Emancipation Park.

         On August 7, 2017, less than a week before the long-planned demonstration at the Park, the defendants notified Kessler by letter that they were "revok[ing]" the permit. The defendants further advised that they were "modif[ying]" the permit to require that the demonstration take place at Mclntire Park, which is located more than a mile from Emancipation Park. At the same time, the defendants took no action to modify or revoke the permits issued to counter-protestors for demonstrations planned within blocks of Emancipation Park. In revoking the permit, the defendants cited "safety concerns" associated with the number of people expected to attend Kessler's rally. However, the defendants cited no source for those concerns and provided no explanation for why the concerns only resulted in adverse action being taken on Kessler's permit.

         Kessler filed the instant action on the evening of August 10, 2017. The following morning, he filed the instant motion for preliminary injunctive relief. The motion was fully briefed and the court heard oral argument on August 11, 2017.

         Discussion

         A preliminary injunction is an "extraordinary remed[y] involving the exercise of very far-reaching power" and is "to be granted only sparingly and in limited circumstances." MicroStrategy Inc. v. Motorola, Inc., 245 F.3d 335, 339 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Direx Israel Ltd. v. Breakthrough Med. Corp., 952 F.2d 802, 816 (4th Cir. 1991)). In order to obtain preliminary injunctive relief, "a plaintiff 'must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.'" WV Ass'n of Club Owners & Fraternal Servs., Inc. v. Musgrave, 553 F.3d 292, 298 (4th Cir. 2009) ("quoting Winter v. Nat. Res. Defense Council Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008)).

         I. Likelihood of Success on the Merits

         Kessler claims that the defendants' decision to revoke his permit was a content-based restriction that cannot survive strict scrutiny. Based on the current record, the court concludes that Kessler has shown that he is likely to prevail on this claim.

         Under the First Amendment, made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, "a municipal government . . . has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content." Police Dep't of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92, 95 (1972). Content-based restrictions-those that target speech based on its content- "are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests." Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S.Ct. 2218, 2226(2015).

         "Government regulation of speech is content based if a [restriction] applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed." Id. at 2227. Content-based restrictions are not limited to those that '"on [their] face' draw[] distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys." Id. Instead, they include those that "cannot be 'justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, ' or that were adopted by the government 'because of disagreement with the message [the speech] conveys.'" Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989)).

         Based on the current record, the court concludes that Kessler has shown that he will likely prove that the decision to revoke his permit was based on the content of his speech. Kessler's assertion in this regard is supported by the fact that the City solely revoked his permit, but left in place the permits issued to counter-protestors. The disparity in treatment between the two groups with opposing views suggests that the defendants' decision to revoke Kessler's permit was based on the content of his speech rather than other neutral factors that would be equally applicable to Kessler and those protesting against him. This conclusion is bolstered by other evidence, including communications on social media indicating that members of City Council oppose Kessler's political viewpoint. At this stage of the proceedings, the evidence cited by Kessler supports the conclusion that the City's decision constitutes a content-based restriction of speech.

         Content-based restrictions "can stand only if they survive strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest." Id., at 2231 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Based on the existing record, the court is unable to conclude that the defendants can meet this burden. Although the defendants maintain that the decision to revoke Kessler's permit was motivated by the number of people likely to attend the demonstration, the record indicates that their concerns in this regard ...


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