Letter from 12 members of Congress Print
Below is the text of a letter from 12 members of Congress regarding the dispute about the permit for the yearly November Vigil at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia:

Dear Mayor Tomlinson and Police Chief Boren,

We write to express our concern regarding the unprecedented restrictions that the City of Columbus has placed on the yearly "School of the Americas Watch" vigil, including limiting the number of demonstrators to 200 and prohibiting the construction of a stage at the traditional protest site. We believe that these restrictions not only contravene the spirit of the First Amendment, but also flout judicial precedents set last decade when the City of Columbus unsuccessfully attempted to restrict the First and Fourth Amendment rights of Vigil attendees.

As you may know, every November since 1990, thousands of demonstrators have gathered peacefully in front of the "Stone Gate" of Ft. Benning, which houses the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). Demonstrators commemorate those who have allegedly perished at the hands of SOA/WHINSEC graduates and demand a change in U.S. government policy with respect to Latin America.

The City of Columbus has jurisdiction over the public street in front of the gates to Ft. Benning (Ft. Benning Road), and has traditionally allowed protestors to utilize the part of the street from Victory Drive until the "Stone Gate" entrance. Courts have held that this tradition has established a right for demonstrators to hold the yearly vigil outside the Stone Gate. See Columbus v. Bourgeois, No. 4:01-CV-147-3 (Middle District GA, Nov. 16, 2001)("The Government has dedicated this property from Victory Drive to the gates of Fort Benning as public forum for the expression of political dissent, free speech, without permit, for 11 years.... The property is public forum from Victory Drive to the gate.")

We understand that, in a June 23, 2014 letter to vigil organizers, Police Chief Boren wrote that unspecified "safety issues. . . require the limitation of the numbers of participants" to a maximum of "two hundred participants" that may demonstrate peacefully in the traditional site near the "Stone Gate." Upon further inquiry, we learned that the primary justification given for this drastic change in protocol is to avoid traffic disturbances to the base, despite the existence of many alternative entrances.

It is undisputed that the limit of 200 demonstrators is insufficient to deal with the expected attendance for the event. According to the New York Times, 17,000 people attended the Vigil in a single year. While attendance fluctuates from year to year, no one contends that a permit for 200 demonstrators would be sufficient to meet the needs of the vigil. Accommodations must be made to ensure that all demonstrators wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights may freely do so.

We do not believe that concerns about traffic flow are an adequate reason for this sudden change in the permit, and are concerned that it may be an attempt to suppress the demonstrators' First Amendment rights. These restrictions on the vigil are likely not "content-neutral," nor are they sufficiently "narrowly tailored" to a "compelling government interest," as required by First Amendment jurisprudence. Further, it would be an unnecessary waste of resources, as well as a public relations error for the city, to force this issue to be litigated in the courts once again.

A simple solution would be to close the road as has been done in past years. Ft. Benning officials could be encouraged to utilize the S. Lumpkin entrance, or any of the other entrances, for traffic flows. While the demonstration may impede traffic and constitute an inconvenience to Ft. Benning, these types of disruptions are part and parcel of our country's proud tradition of vigorous free speech.

As always, we thank you for your service and consideration of our views on this important matter.


Sincerely,

John Conyers, Jr.
Member of Congress

Jim McGovern
Member of Congress

John Lewis
Member of Congress

Hank Johnson
Member of Congress

Sam Farr
Member of Congress

Danny K. Davis
Member of Congress

Barbara Lee
Member of Congress

Michael Capuano
Member of Congress

Peter DeFazio
Member of Congress

Jan Schakowsky
Member of Congress

Maxine Waters
Member of Congress

Luis Gutierrez
Member of Congress