Georgia city drops sign ban ahead of Pence’s Savannah St. Patrick’s Day visit

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A suit filed Friday morning was dismissed as moot shortly afterward when the city retracted the policy.

By Jan SkutchGatehouse Media Georgia

SAVANNAH, Ga. — A suit filed Friday morning challenging the city of Savannah’s ban on protest signs during Vice President Mike Pence’s visit for the St. Patrick’s Day parade was dismissed as moot shortly afterward when the city retracted the policy.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia contended in the civil action that city officials were violating the First Amendment by banning hand-held signs “displaying messages critical of the government” in Pence’s view along the parade route.

They asked U.S. District Senior Judge William T. Moore Jr. for an injunction to prevent enforcement of the ban.

By 11 a.m., Moore issued an order that said he had been “advised by one of the (plaintiffs’) lawyers that their request for injunctive relief is now moot because the (city) has retracted the objectionable policy.”

Almost immediately after the suit was filed, city spokesman Martin Sullivan said the policy allows posters but bans use of sticks or wood.

City officials later Friday clarified that policy to read “that signs on paper, fabric, or poster board are allowed in the enhanced security zone on parade day. Signs that are made on a hard material or on sticks are not allowed. Signs cannot exceed 20 feet by 3 feet by a quarter-inch thick.”

Savannah attorney Will Claiborne, a local counsel in the case, said Friday that “in direct response to our lawsuit, the city has caved in.”

“This is a great day for the First Amendment,” he added.

The suit, filed for four individuals who planned to bring such hand-held poster signs on Saturday, said, “This case seeks to vindicate this classic First Amendment right.”

During a press conference later that afternoon, city spokesperson Michelle Gavin said the city had mistakenly said signs would be prohibited as result of a miscommunication with Secret Service.

“As soon as we found out we had put out that misinformation, we wanted to correct it as soon as possible,” Gavin said. “This was no intent at all to infringe on anyone’s rights.”

Interim Savannah Police Chief Mark Revenew said officers and the Secret Service will also respect residents’ First Amendment rights.

“This is nothing new to them or new to us,” Revenew said. “We’re going to respect those boundaries, but people need to understand, whether or not politics come into play, you still have to respect the position. And I think that it’s important as Americans that we respect our offices.”

City of Savannah officials on Wednesday identified a 12-block “enhanced security zone” extending from Bay Street to Oglethorpe Avenue and Whitaker and Drayton streets, including Wright and Johnson Squares.

Pence, along with family members, is scheduled to arrive in Savannah about 10 a.m. Saturday and attend the parade along with Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach on the balcony of City Hall, then walk down Bull Street to celebrate with local leaders, parade officials and local officials.

The suit was signed by Savannah attorneys Claiborne and Wesley Woolf and Sean Young of the ACLU.

Jan Skutch is a reporter for the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News.

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