ATLANTA (AP) – A city in Georgia did not violate the constitutional rights of a group of Sons of Confederate Veterans when it banned the Confederate battle flag from its annual parade in honor of veterans of American wars, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
Richard Leake and Michael Dean sued Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta, in August 2019 after city officials said the Sons of Confederate Veterans could participate in the annual Alumni Parade but could not display the flag of the battle. The federal civil rights lawsuit accused the city of violating the group’s right to free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
U.S. District Judge William Ray in June 2020 ruled in favor of the city, ruling the parade amounted to a government speech. Leake and Dean appealed to the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel of the appeals court heard arguments in the case on Friday and issued an opinion on Tuesday upholding the lower court’s decision.
“Because governments are not obligated under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to allow the presence of a rebel army battle flag in the pro-veterans parades they fund and organize, we say, “Circuit Chief Justice William Pryor wrote in the notice.
The battle emblem, which has a red background topped with a blue X with 13 white stars, has been condemned and removed along with other Confederacy symbols amid protests against racial injustice. In 2020, Mississippi dropped its Confederate-themed flag and, elsewhere, monuments to Southern figures including Robert E. Lee fell.
As the town of Alpharetta emerged victorious on Tuesday, the row ultimately led city officials to end the parade.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Leake said he had not seen the 11th Circuit opinion and would have no comment if he had. Dean could not be reached. Kyle King, an attorney for the couple, said in an email he appeared in court on Tuesday and was unable to make a meaningful comment. Alpharetta Deputy City Administrator James Drinkard said in an email that the city is not commenting on pending cases in court.
Pryor detailed the history of the litigation in the notice:
Alpharetta began the Old Soldiers Day Parade after the Civil War to honor veterans of that war, but ceased to hold it a few years later. The parade resumed in 1952 at the instigation of a group of residents who wanted to recognize local veterans, and the city had sponsored it every year since.
Leake, a member of the Roswell Mills Camp Sons of Confederate Veterans, filled out a request in July 2019 for the group to participate in the parade about a month later, on August 3. The request stated that the group would have a truck pulling a trailer with participants holding unit flags. Leake described the organization as “dedicated to preserving the memory of our ancestors who served in the war between states and ensuring that the southern view of that conflict is preserved.”
The city promoted the parade on its website as aimed at “celebrating and honoring all veterans, especially those of Alpharetta, who stood up for the rights and freedoms that everyone enjoys in the United States of America. America”.
Drinkard, the city’s deputy administrator, responded to the request by saying the parade was aimed at uniting the community and celebrating U.S. veterans and raised concerns about the participation of an organization dedicated solely to honoring the Confederate soldiers. The letter said that “the Confederate battle flag has become a symbol of division that a large portion of our citizens see as symbolizing oppression and slavery.” This division would be detrimental to the parade’s objectives and the city, supported by the mayor, had decided not to allow the display of the Confederate battle flag in the parade.
The letter said the Sons of Confederate Veterans could participate without the flag and should also agree to do nothing “that would undermine the purpose of the event to unite our community in celebrating American veterans.”
Three days before the parade, Leake and Dean sued city officials. They sought pecuniary damages for the violation of their rights and also sought a court order to allow them to participate in the parade with the Confederate battle flag that year and in the future.
The parade went as planned. The Sons of Confederate Veterans did not participate, and instead their supporters raised the Confederate battle flag along the parade route.
A few months later, in December 2019, Alpharetta City Council voted to stop using taxpayer money to fund the Old Soldiers Day Parade, bringing it to an end. Alpharetta is a city of over 57,000 people located approximately 40 kilometers north of downtown Atlanta.