ACLU ‘concerned’ about free speech in city

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 4, 2000

Representatives of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said they are concerned over possible infringement of citizens right to free speech in Natchez.

On Tuesday, David Ingebretsen, executive director of the state ACLU, reviewed a complaint filed Jan. 21 by Sher Sheshab Heter-C.M. Boxley.

Boxley filed the complaint for infringement of his right to free speech when he said he was told to leave the Natchez Visitor Reception Center during a Dec. 16 meeting for the Natchez Trace extension project.

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Boxley wrote in his complaint that City Engineer David Gardner violated his right to free speech by &uot;ordering&uot; Boxley to leave his position outside the Natchez Convention and Visitor’s Bureau office where he had been passing out literature from the NAACP’s Fair Share Economic Reciprocity committee.

The NAACP&160;leaflet opposed any extension of the Natchez Trace Parkway that does not include the Forks of the Road historic site.

&uot;The ACLU is concerned about what happened to Mr. Boxley,&uot; Ingebretsen said. &uot;We’re gathering more information and will decide what to do in the next week.&uot;

Ingebretsen said he will talk with city officials before he meets with an ACLU&160;staff attorney in Jackson regarding possible litigation.

&uot;We’ll be glad to talk to anybody who contacts us – we have no reason not to,&uot; said Natchez Mayor Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown.

The mayor said he did not believe Boxley’s free speech was infringed.

&uot;No, I&160;don’t I&160;think Mr. Boxley has a case. What Mr. Boxley was doing was interrupting a called meeting,&uot; Brown said.

Brown said he didn’t know if Boxley ever entered the building where the meeting was taking place. &uot;But he was disrupting the meeting,&uot; Brown said.

&uot;We just want to be sure the free speech rights of the citizens of Natchez are protected,&uot; Ingbretson said.

Boxley said he was pleased to learn the ACLU was interested in his case. &uot;This is an issue that does in fact address an area of broad impact for the public,&uot; he said.

Since Boxley filed his complaint with the state ACLU, the Natchez Chapter of the NAACP has written the ACLU expressing its concern. In a letter to the Mississippi ACLU dated Jan. 27, Natchez NAACP President Alfred Hunter supported Boxley’s complaint.

&uot;The freedom of speech rights of our branch and any other individuals or groups are at risk when a city governmental employee can blatantly order a citizen, resident, taxpayers, organization, etc. to leave the public area outside of a government building,&uot; Hunter wrote. &uot;Suppose our branch decides to picket the center or the construction site for the city’s new convention center or the Confederate Pageant at the City Auditorium or any other government site that’s federal, state, county or city. Will we be denied our freedom of speech rights by the impulse discretion of city employees and officials?&uot;

The mayor said he believed the whole incident was the result of &uot;an unfortunate set of circumstances.&uot;

&uot;Mr. Boxley has never contacted me or the city,&uot; Brown said.

The mayor said the city has always worked for cultural diversity on such projects as getting the Forks of the Road named a historic site and assisting with the formation of the Natchez Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.

&uot;We’re very proactive,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Our record speaks loudly and clearly.&uot;

Boxley said he told James Taylor, chairman of the NAACP Grievance Committee, to allow the ACLU&160;to complete its process before making public protests against the city.

&uot;I told the chairman of the complaint committee to just wait it out until the ACLU process has been completed before the branch addressed the issue,&uot;&160;Boxley said.

The ultimate goal in filing the complaint with the ACLU is to promote &uot;respectful dialogue&uot; from government leaders, Boxley said.