Thursday, May 19, 2022

Oxford Artist Takes Permit Denial to Federal Court

By Alyssa Schnugg
News editor

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi along with local attorneys recently represented an Oxford filmmaker and artist John Rash in court recently when he was denied a permit by Lafayette County to project art onto the Courthouse.

As part of the annual Oxford Art-er Limits Fringe Festival held in August, Rash organizes PROJECT(ion), an evening exhibit that displays projection art onto the Lafayette County Courthouse and on the Confederate monument that stands on the south side of the courthouse.

Rash applied for a permit for the Saturday event; however, the Board of Supervisors had recently changed its event policy to not allow any events on the grounds of the Courthouse after dark. Rash’s permit was denied.

“This complete closure, as well as other unreasonably burdensome restrictions on John’s use of a public forum like the County Courthouse grounds, is a textbook First Amendment violation,” said Joshua Tom, Legal Director at the ACLU of Mississippi. “Instead of restricting speech, it is Lafayette County’s obligation to ensure its residents can safely exercise their constitutional rights.”

After seeking emergency relief on July 31, the parties appeared before United States District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr., on Wednesday for oral argument. Biggers issued an opinion on Thursday denying Rash’s emergency relief, according to a press release by the ACLU of Mississippi.

“It’s extremely disappointing that this community event we have organized along with local artists for the past three years is no longer welcome at the center of Oxford’s Square,” Rash said.

The event invites photographers, video artists, filmmakers and digital artists to contribute their works to be shown as projected installations on the buildings and architectural objects around the square.

“While PROJECT(ion) will not be held on the County Courthouse grounds this year, we intend to continue the case on an expedited basis and a full record, so that the First Amendment rights of all Lafayette County residents are protected,” said Jonathan Youngwood, partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP that is representing Rash.

Rash received permission to project the art on a screen located on the steps between City Hall and Square Books Jr.

The Supervisors changed their event policy earlier in the month at the recommendation of Lafayette County Sheriff Joey East due to security concerns.