After last weekend’s unruly display of free speech, officials at Stone Mountain Park are exploring ways to further control — or even stop — future rallies on the basis that they put the public in danger, I’ve learned.
“We will be looking at all additional options available to balance the safety of the public versus the right to freedom of speech,” John Bankhead, spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Authority, the state body that governs the park, told me.
Saturday’s nominal main protest was a white supremacist rally called Rock Stone Mountain, but with only a couple of dozen activists in that group the mountain barely swayed, much less rocked.
The real noise came from a diverse coalition of several protest groups that aimed to shut down the white supremacist message of Rock Stone Mountain. This group of between 200 and 300 organized under the All Out ATL banner spent the day pushing a police line across the park until they came within about 150 yards of the white supremacists.
I spent a lot of time Saturday monitoring the All Out ATL group and speaking with them about their strategies and interactions with police. Some were clearly frustrated by the police strategy to keep the two groups as far apart as possible, and one counter protester even suggested that it was illegal.
Anthony Kreis, an expert in the law and social change at The University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, said the government has to balance public safety concerns with a Constitutional requirement to protect speech, even hateful speech. Keeping the two sides so far apart could be problematic, he said.
“It’s important for counter protesters to be within the general vicinity of the event they are there to show some form of opposition to,” Kreis said. “Their speech loses some impact and value when the government separates them from the event they are there to protest.”
Park in a tight spot
At the same time, police cannot allow one side of a debate to rob the other of their right to speech by threatening them or overwhelming them, he said. All Out ATL’s stated intention was to “shut down” Rock Stone Mountain.
The counter protesters threw rocks and set fires, chanted and swore at the officers. For their part, the officers — made up of state troopers and local jurisdictions — gave ground when they needed to and let the energy of the event play itself out.
The physical damage to the park was minimal, but it is terrible publicity for a park that bills itself as a family-friendly park full of “amazing adventures.”
“The park is caught between a mountain and a hard place,” said Bankhead, the park spokesman.
Dawn O’Neal, who was part of the counter demonstration, said the park should never have permitted Rock Stone Mountain to hold its event there and should have banned them even at the risk of a lawsuit.
“For them to have the Klan here is like state-sanctioned racism,” she said. “They don’t belong in our park. They don’t belong in our neighborhoods. This park is surrounded by black and brown neighborhoods.”
Banning protests difficult
The park has long hosted ugly displays of First Amendment-protected speech. The modern incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was birthed atop the mountain a hundred years ago and periodically the KKK has returned to restate its dubious claim on the rock.
But since last summer’s massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston reopened the long simmering debate over the public display of the Confederate battle flag, Stone Mountain has endured a series of rallies. Since August, the rallies have become smaller but more strident.
This year, the park adopted a permitting procedure, vetted by Attorney General Sam Olens’ office, to govern such rallies. But Bankhead said park officials continue to explore ways to “prevent or control such volatile events in the future.”
Paul Torino, one of the All Out ATL organizers, said some in the group wanted to create an atmosphere so acrimonious that future Confederate flag demonstrations wouldn’t be allowed. While he said he does not have a position on whether the park should ban such protests, “now maybe it will be easier for them to make that case.”
Kreis said banning protests for public safety reasons is very difficult. Georgia has a long history of small groups of white supremacists being met with large jeering crowds, so Stone Mountain would have a hard time proving why they should curtail such speech now, he said.
Even Saturday’s rock-throwing, profanity-laced event likely would be viewed by the court as something the Founding Fathers envisioned.
“There was nothing admirable about it. It wasn’t a smoothly run event. There were disruptions and there were arrests, but the fact of the matter was they didn’t need to shut off speech completely to protect people,” Kreis said. “For them to remove an entire type of protest or to shut down free speech, that seems troublesome.”
As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.