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Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James, speaks against a wastewater discharge permit for the YCI Methanol complex Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, during a state public hearing. Lavigne’s face is shown, far left, on one of two large video screens as she spoke inside an outdoor, air-conditioned tent where the hearing was held. Two other tents were set up with similar equipment for comments but weren’t used.

A lawsuit alleges the town of Gramercy's parade ordinance amounts to an improper and sweeping ban on political and commercial speech that can only be eased at the discretion of local leaders, violating the First Amendment.

Sharon Lavigne, an outspoken critic of continued industrial development in St. James Parish, and the group she founded, Rise St. James, make that allegation in a new federal lawsuit against Gramercy Mayor Steve Nosacka and the town government.

The lawsuit alleges that a $10,000 bond requirement and other rules in the town's parade ordinance forced her group to abandon plans to hold a protest march in Gramercy against a proposed constitutional amendment Oct. 17.

The group instead marched through neighboring Lutcher. The group was protesting Amendment 5, which failed at the ballot nearly 2-to-1.

"This case illustrates exactly why the adherence to the First Amendment matters," said Katie Schwartzmann, director of Tulane Law School's First Amendment clinic. "RISE St. James was not able to be heard by the people of Gramercy on an issue that matters greatly to that community. This permitting scheme functioned to silence the citizens, which is deeply offensive to our shared values as Americans.”

The First Amendment clinic is representing Lavigne and Rise St. James. They seek to have the town ordinance declared unconstitutional and to have the town barred from enforcing it. The plaintiffs are also seeking nominal damages and attorneys' fees and costs.

The now-failed Constitutional Amendment 5 at issue in the march would have made negotiated property tax payments with local governments, known as payment-in-lieu -of-taxes agreements, easier to accomplish with industrial taxpayers, and in particular, existing ones.

Groups such as Rise St. James said it would have made it easier for industries to receive big tax breaks for up to 25 years. Backers argued the amendment was only extending an existing form of tax abatement to industrial users that would still have had to be voted on publicly by local governments.

The lawsuit makes note of Nosacka's private sector work as a financial and economic development consultant for municipalities and his role in helping industrial concerns find new plant sites.

The lawsuit over the march was filed last week in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. 

Reached Monday, Nosacka said he wasn't yet aware of the suit and declined to comment. He did provide a copy of the town ordinance, which appears to be geared primarily toward regulating and setting up routes for parades through town. 

After initially agreeing to waive the bond requirement, and redrawing the march route to avoid a planned jambalaya sale, Nosacka later reversed course at the direction of "his people," the lawsuit said.

The Town Board of Aldermen unanimously authorized the permit Oct. 13 but required that a bond be posted by noon Oct. 16. Unable to line up the bond through an insurance company, the group held a march in Lutcher, which had previously authorized one.

"The Parade Bond effectively served as a prohibitive tax and obstacle upon the plaintiffs’ protected rights of speech and assembly, causing restriction on their First Amendment right to march in the town of Gramercy against proposed Louisiana Amendment 5," the lawsuit alleges.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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