New lawsuit says right to protest was violated; Governor responds

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Four people, including one who previously took part in an unsuccessful lawsuit over church gatherings, have sued Gov. Andy Beasher and the state, claiming their First Amendment rights to protest have been violated by orders against mass gatherings and by limits placed on where and how protests can be held at the state Capitol.

In the 31-page lawsuit and a 25-page legal brief seeking a temporary injunction, the four, Tony Ramsek and Theodore Roberts, both of Boone County, Frank Harris, of Fayette County, and Tony Wheatley, of Mercer County, say the governor’s orders intentionally targeted protests under the veiled canopy of health and safety protections against the spread of the coronavirus. (To read the lawsuit, click here protest lawsuit)

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Roberts was among those who filed the initial lawsuit challenging a ban on -in-person church services. Wheatley is an active member of the Constitutional Kentucky organization, according to court documents.

And they say comments made by the governor were meant to keep people from protesting for fear of punishment, although no citations or actions have been taken against any protesters at the Capitol since they began more than a month ago.

The four claim an injunction is needed to block enforcement of the governor’s orders because a rally is planned May 23. The group is seeking class-action status for their claims.

During his daily briefing Tuesday, Gov. Andy Beshear said he has no intentions of blocking protests and doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him. But he does hope they will practice safety.

“I want people to speak out, to disagree with me. I just want them to do it safely,” Beshear said, noting there have been “no repercussions.”

“So many people leading this rally don’t believe this is real…just make sure they are safe, everyone matters, everyone counts,” the governor added, noting he opposed people waving Confederate flags and white supremacists flags at the rallies.

“Free speech is one thing but that sends a message of hate,” he said.

In addition to Beshear, the lawsuit names Kentucky public health commissioner Steven Stack and Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander. They are accused of limiting how and where people can protest.

Several lawsuits have been filed challenging Beshear’s orders on prohibiting mass gatherings but most have been over in-person church services. After one judge upheld the ban, another church Friday
blocked the state from enforcing the mass gathering ban on religious
services.

The issue over protests began April 15 when a small group using bullhorns gathered outside the Capitol near where Beshear holds his daily briefings, disrupting the question and answer session inside.

The protesters did not practice social distancing or other safety guidelines.

Afterwards, barriers were put up to prevent protesters from getting to the area and the state set aside an area for protests at the top of the parking
garage on the property, which the the four claim is out of sight and
hearing range.

The protesters would also have to stay in their cars in
that area, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also alleges that the alternative protesting options, like
the drive-up area at the parking garage or drive-through protests in
front of the Capitol, were blocked by law enforcement during the May 2
protests.

The four are planning a protest for May 23 and have invited federal and
state legislators, the lawsuit says.

“Several legislators have indicated to Plaintiffs that Governor Beshear
has informed the state legislators that he will pursue action against
them in the form of legislative ethics complaints or criminal
prosecution if they should attend,” the lawsuit alleges. “At least one
member of Kentucky’s federal delegation has expressed an interest in
speaking, but is concerned about the Governor’s threats.”

The lawsuit also alleges that there is no system in place to notify
individuals who may be accused of violating COVID-19 orders, and that
there’s no mechanism for those accused to appeal or challenge the
accusation.