In July, Oxonian artist and educator John Rash, along with other artists, wanted to project artistic images on the grounds of the Lafayette County courthouse in Oxford, as well as onto the Confederate monument that calls the public space home.
“The entire courthouse lawn would have been fair game,” Rash said today of his plans for the 2020 presentation of PROJECT(ion), part of the Art-er Limits Fringe Festival
But on the morning of July 23, Lafayette County denied the permit for the art event, in the wake of a controversial unanimous vote by the all-white board of supervisors to keep the statue in the place it’s stood since 1907.The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi now has filed suit against Lafayette County for violating the artist’s First Amendment rights. The law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, as well as attorney Jack Williams represent Rash.
The Center of Protests Against Racial Violence
Rash is the creator of PROJECT(ion), which his website describes as a
“one-night public art event created by John Rash for artists, video makers, photographers, and other creative freaks to transform an architectural space with light and imagination. Participating artists are filmmakers, photographers, animators, and digital artists presenting their work as part of a cacophony of projected images on architectural surfaces (brick, concrete, steel) in a designated urban space.”
Rash has been organizing this event since August 2018 and previously used the Lafayette County courthouse grounds when PROJECT(ion) was held last year.
ACLU Legal Director Joshua F. Tom told the Mississippi Free Press today that the grounds of the courthouse serve as an important social component of the community. The site is frequently used for all types of protests and public discourse. Rash also stated that the use of the center of the Oxford Square would have allowed folks to safely view the artwork without much risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19.
“The commercial space is a little more restrictive,” Rash said. “We didn’t want to put the artists or the people who might come to view the work at risk of being in close contact if we could do it at a space like the courthouse which is much more visible and open to the public.”
This summer, the location has been at the center of protests against racial violence following the death of George Floyd. Confederate sympathizers against statue removal often gather next to the statue in front of the courthouse.
On the night of July 19, the Delta Flaggers held a candlelight vigil on the courthouse grounds for a Black Confederate sympathizer and Oxonian, Anthony Hervey, who died in a car accident in 2015.
The next day the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors amended the Facility Use Policy regarding use of the courthouse grounds. They chose to close the grounds for any use from dusk until dawn, citing security concerns as the motivation behind their decision. However, in the months following George Floyd’s death, violence has not gripped Oxford. All protests in the north Mississippi college town have been peaceful.
‘Things That Have Been Going on in Oxford Lately’
Rash’s attorneys say Lafayette County is violating his First Amendment rights through the actions of the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Joey East “(i) by retaliating against Mr. Rash by closing the County Courthouse grounds after dusk and denying a permit for him to use the grounds to project visual art because it disfavors the content of Mr. Rash’s speech, and (ii) by imposing unreasonable restrictions on use of the County Courthouse grounds for protected speech.”
The artist applied for this permit on July 14. Rash told the Mississippi Free Press that a representative of the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department called him on July 16 and asked, “Really, what I want to know, is there anything that is going to talk about the monument or things that have been going on in Oxford lately?”
Rash told the representative that it was “likely,” because participating artists are in control of their own work and had addressed social issues like race previously.
According to the complaint, the sheriff’s employee then told Rash, “If that’s the case, I have to get back to you” to which Rash replied, “It doesn’t seem appropriate to make this decision based on content.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see and get back to you,” the sheriff’s employee then responded.
Lafayette County then rejected the permit request—soon after limiting citizens’ access to the courthouse grounds entirely after the sun goes down.
‘No Arrests. No Vandalism. No Violence’
Rash emphasized that there’s been a lot of activity out on the courthouse lawn this summer from both sides of the monument issue.
“Here in Oxford all of those have been extremely peaceful. No arrests. No Vandalism. No Violence,” he said. “So to see this art event, that’s not even really a protest. Of course there’s political speech in it, but it’s hard to say that any art doesn’t have political speech—is going to incite any security issues that are greater than those events that were actually permitted as protests. (The permit denial) was really disappointing to me and somewhat confounding because we had been out there before in the past.”
The ACLU legal director explained that speech in a public square is a basic right under the U.S Constitution.
“The square in Oxford is the center of the town. It’s the center of the business district, the civic district, it’s where the life in a large part of Oxford happens,” Tom told the Mississippi Free Press. “The county courthouse is at the center of the square, and the county courthouse really acts as a small part of the center of the square. It’s open to people that want to walk through it, it has benches, it has grass, it has sidewalks on it. That type of public space–the grounds of the county courthouse–throughout history have been used for speech and assembly for civic projects like John’s projection event and also for protests.
Tom said it’s the role of Lafayette County to ensure that people can engage in discourse, protests and art events on its public square. “It’s not the government’s role to decide who gets to speak there or not,” he said. “They just need to make sure that everybody that wants to speak there can do so peacefully.”