Starkville Pride has formally sued the city of Starkville.
The suit, filed late Monday afternoon in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi’s Eastern Division, seeks an injunction against the Starkville Board of Aldermen’s vote on Feb. 20 to deny a request for a Pride parade planned for March.
Federal Judge Sharion Aycock is presiding over the case.
Roberta Kaplan, of New York law firm Kaplan and Company, is representing Starkville Pride as a whole, as well as organizers Bailey McDaniel and Emily Turner.
Starkville Pride is a grassroots lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) support group.
Four aldermen — Ben Carver of Ward 1, David Little of Ward 3, Roy A. Perkins of Ward 6 and Henry Vaughn of Ward 7 — voted to deny the parade request. Three aldermen — Sandra Sistrunk of Ward 2, Jason Walker of Ward 4 and Patrick Miller of Ward 5 — voted in support of the event.
The request was originally on the consent agenda, where it would have been approved without discussion among a litany of other mostly housekeeping items. Perkins, who moved to deny the request, pulled it from the consent agenda at the beginning of the Feb. 20 meeting.
None of the aldermen who voted to deny Starkville Pride’s request said why they denied the request during the meeting.
The 12-page complaint contends the four aldermen who voted against the parade did so purely for content-based reasons, and in doing so, violated the members of Starkville Pride’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“(The city’s) denial of (Starkville Pride’s) application violated and continues to violate (Starkville Pride’s) rights to freedom of speech, assemble and petition guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment,” the complaint says. “(The city’s) denial of (Starkville Pride’s) application was based on their viewpoint and the content of the speech at issue. The denial was not necessary to achieve any compelling government interest.”
The complaint also notes that Starkville Pride, which has about 77 members, raised roughly $7,000 to hold the parade. Efforts to organize the parade began in July 2017. Organizers expected about 200 participants and 200 spectators.
However, the GoFundMe account in Starkville Pride’s name indicates the group has raised more than $11,000.
Starkville Pride requested street closures in connection with the parade at an estimated cost of $3,220 to the city. The parade was set to start on Russell Street, and loop around downtown Starkville on Main and Lampkin Streets.
City staff has said the parade permit, which came to the board as a special event request, was properly applied for. Starkville Pride’s complaint notes public records are available for 88 special event applications from 2012 to February 2018. It says that of those, 80 were approved as part of the board’s consent agenda or were otherwise decided through a vote with no public comment or deliberation.
It further notes that only two of the 88 applications before Starkville Pride’s request involved a substantial public comment or deliberation. Those were 2011 and 2012, and the comments and deliberation were “exclusively logistical in nature.”
“Publicly available records indicate that, since 2010, every special events application considered by the Board (other than Starkville Pride’s) has been granted,” the complaint says.
Mayor Lynn Spruill was aware of the suit Monday evening but said she’d not yet had a chance to read the complaint. She said city attorney Chris Latimer will also have to look at the suit.
“Certainly it will be something we will be looking at,” Spruill said. “Mr. Latimer, as our attorney, will handle that or advise us appropriately. Beyond that, we can’t comment at the moment.”
McDaniel, in a release issued after the lawsuit’s filing, said Starkville Pride only wanted to have its parade for a day of “celebration and inclusiveness.”
“Without explanation or warning, a whole community of people has been denied their constitutional rights,” she said. “We would like to believe that this type of hateful, intolerant behavior does not represent the Starkville community and we hope that the decision will be reversed.”
Since the denial, McDaniel, who indicated the lawsuit would seek an injunction against the board’s decision, has said Starkville Pride is still planning to host its Pride event on March 24.
Kaplan, who has successfully argued for gay rights before the U.S. Supreme Court and in the state of Mississippi, said she believes the case is a straightforward matter of the city violating Starkville Pride’s constitutional rights.
“Based solely on the content of their speech, specifically the fact that they take pride in being gay, these students are being denied their right to speak in a public forum,” Kaplan said. “We are confident that the federal court will reverse this unconstitutional action and allow the parade to proceed as planned.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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