In a major court victory, the “Vote to Stop Cop City” referendum effort will get at least 60 more days to gather signatures, which can now be done by nonresidents of Atlanta as a federal judge says the ban on their participation is likely unconstitutional.
The July 27 preliminary injunction in the lawsuit Baker v. City of Atlanta ordered by U.S. District Judge Mark H. Cohen is a big boost to the referendum effort, which faces the huge task of gathering at least 70,000 signatures to make the ballot. While not the final decision in the case, Cohen’s order is devastating to arguments from City and state lawyers, saying that the plaintiffs are “likely to succeed” in their allegation that the City’s petition-gathering law violates the First Amendment.
The referendum effort seeks to put the City of Atlanta’s lease of land to the private Atlanta Police Foundation for its controversial public safety training center – dubbed “Cop City” by opponents – on the ballot for a binding yes-or-no vote. Killing the lease would essentially kill the project, which is currently in a site-preparation, pre-construction phase.
Under the previous timeline, the effort had until mid-August to gather enough signatures, which was clearly creating a crunch. Organizers complained that they had an even tighter timeline due to a delay in the Atlanta Municipal Clerk’s office approving and releasing official petition forms, a dispute that was the subject of a previous court challenge. By law, such referendum efforts have 60 days from the day of the petition form’s issuance to collect signatures.
To make the ballot, the referendum effort needs signatures from 15 percent of voters who were registered on Atlanta’s rolls in 2021. Signatures from nonresidents don’t count – even though the training center site itself is outside City limits on City-owned land in unincorporated DeKalb County.
The question in the current lawsuit is whether nonresidents can collect signatures – an important staffing issue for the campaign as well as one that raises First Amendment concerns for people who live near the training center site yet have no direct political representation with its planners and operators.
Four DeKalb activists involved in the referendum — Lisa Baker, Jacqueline Dougherty, Keyanna Jones and Amelia Weltner — filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the City and the state of Georgia on July 6, claiming that the Atlanta residency requirement for signature gathers violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government.
Their complaint asked the court to declare the residency requirement unconstitutional and to set a new signature-gathering method that restarts the 60-day clock and allows already collected signatures to count. Clearly aware of the time crunch, Cohen ordered expedited responses to consider issuing a preliminary injunction. His July 27 order essentially granted all of the plaintiffs’ requests as a preliminary move while the lawsuit is still pending.
Cohen ordered the City not to enforce the code that requires petition signature-gatherers to swear they are City residents. He also ordered the clerk’s office to issue new petition forms removing the requirement to make such a residency declaration. Cohen ordered that a new 60-day clock on signature-collecting will start when those corrected petition forms are issued – and that all valid signatures already collected before then will count toward the total.
Cohen’s order included an extensive discussion of the reasoning behind it. He wrote that a preliminary injunction is an “extraordinary remedy” that courts grant only when a party in a lawsuit can meet some key standards. Especially important is the “substantial likelihood of success [of winning the case] on the merits,” he said, as well as the party suffering irreparable injury, the threat of that injury outweighing any harm to the other party, and that the relief is “not adverse to the public interest.”
The “Vote to Stop Cop City” plaintiffs met all of those standards, Cohen wrote. He said the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their core claim that the residency requirement violates the First Amendment because “it imposes a severe burden on core political speech” for both signature-gatherers and the public who might want to hear from them.
He said that “the residency requirement clearly limits the number of persons who can promote the petition’s message, thereby limiting the potential number of the City’s residents who can receive the political message and making it less likely that the proponents of the petition can gather sufficient signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.”
He said the residency requirement must undergo the highest standard of First Amendment review, known as “strict scrutiny.” Under that standard, the City must show that the speech restriction is “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.” The City did not do that, Cohen wrote, failing to make an argument and misrepresenting a legal precedent. The ban on nonresident signature-gatherers “does little to protect the City’s interest in self-governance,” he wrote.
On the standard of irreparable injury, Cohen focused on City and State lawyers’ claims that the entire referendum effort is unlawful. Cohen agreed with their observations that the state law is in flux after a recent Supreme Court of Georgia ruling on a similar referendum about a Camden County spaceport. “But the issue of the ultimate validity of the proposed referendum… is not ripe for decision by this Court,” he wrote, nor are related claims that it would be found unlawful by disrupting a contract in the form of the lease. He also agreed with the plaintiffs that the City charter appears to authorize such referendums.
On the issue of public interest, Cohen said that extending the signature-collecting time would not disrupt any scheduled process, as the referendum has not even made the ballot yet, let alone had an election date set by the Atlanta City Council. “The City has offered no specifics as to why permitting nonresident Plaintiffs to gather signatures on a petition that must be signed by residents of the City will cause any disruption to the political process,” he wrote.
Cohen also shot down City attorneys’ claims that if the residency element of the referendum law is unconstitutional, then so too is the entire law, thus the entire “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort. He said that just isn’t true, as City code and state law both allow for or presume “severability,” meaning that if one part of a law is found invalid, the rest remains valid.
Three of the plaintiffs issued celebratory comments in a press release from their legal team of Gerry Weber and Spears & Filipovitz.
“Today, a very clear message was sent to Mayor Andre Dickens and all opposing direct democracy that their attempts to suppress free speech are not welcome in Georgia,” said Jones.
“I live on the City line, and not being able to fully participate has been very frustrating, so I’m thrilled to get out there and collect as many signatures as I can for this referendum,” said Weltner.
“Since Day One, the residency restriction has limited my ability to go out and talk with my neighbors,” said Baker. “With this ban lifted, we are ready to win.”
Update: This story has been updated with comment from some of the plaintiffs.