Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1999 22:00:01 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: !*Black Activists Fight for Free Speech
Article: 69494
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Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1999 03:53:57 -0400
From: jonina m abron <>

National Campaign Launched Against State Laws That Violate Free Speech

National Committee to defend the Chattanooga 3 press release, 13 July 1999

2014 Citico Avenue
Chattanooga, TN 37404

For Information, Contact:

JoNina M. Abron

Lorenzo Komboa Ervin

(Chattanooga, Tenn.)—Charging that laws in several states violate the First Amendment right of free speech, supporters of three black activists who face prison for protesting against police brutality have started a national campaign to overturn these laws.

The focal point of the campaign will be Tennessee's disruption law. This misdemeanor offense mandates a six-month prison sentence for anyone who by physical action or verbal utterance interferes with a meeting. Similar laws exist in several states.

We are asking people concerned about the preservation of civil liberties in America to take the necessary steps to wipe these unconstitutional laws off the books wherever they exist, said JoNina M. Abron, chairwoman of the National Committee to Defend the Chattanooga 3, which is leading the campaign.

Letters have been sent to some 200 law schools, attorney organizations, and civil and human rights groups and activists asking them to join the campaign, added Abron, an associate professor in the journalism program of the department of English at Western Michigan University and a former editor of the Black Panther newspaper.

The Chattanooga 3, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, Damon McGhee and Mikail Musa Muhammad (Ralph R. Mitchell), will go on trial October 28 for disrupting a meeting of the Chattanooga City Council on May 19, 1998. On that day, the Coalition Against Police Brutality, to which the three men belonged, held a rally at City Hall where over 150 people protested the April 27 and May 7, 1998, police killings of two black men. Many people in the city's black community did not accept accounts by police that they killed Montrail Collins and Kevin McCullough in self-defense.

Following the killings, members of the coalition contacted city council chairman David Crockett to arrange to present a proposal for a citizens' police review board. It was agreed that Ervin, a spokesman for the coalition, would present the proposal at the start of the city council meeting on May 19.

When the meeting convened, Ervin, who is a former Black Panther, was not allowed to speak. When he asked why, city council members ignored him.

Ervin then began to read a statement denouncing police brutality. At that point, he was beaten and arrested by police. McGhee and Muhammad, who defended Ervin against the police, were also beaten and arrested. The three activists were jailed on disruption charges. Muhammad was also charged with resisting arrest.

It is outrageous that in the process of protesting against police brutality, Lorenzo, Damon and Mikail were themselves the victims of police brutality, Abron said. If they are convicted, a dangerous legal precedent may be set that could be used by those states that have not yet enforced their versions of Tennessee's disruption law.

Ervin is now appealing a 1994 disruption conviction. In that case, he and seven other Chattanooga black civil rights activists were arrested for holding a sidewalk demonstration to protest the refusal of the Hamilton County grand jury to prosecute eight police officers for the choking death of Larry Powell, a black motorist.

During the trial, the judge refused to allow defense attorneys to argue that the disruption law is unconstitutional or that the speeches of the eight activists were protected under the First Amendment.

For their upcoming trial, Ervin, McGhee and Muhammad are seeking pro bono attorneys and law professors who are experts on the First Amendment, Abron said. Ervin's attorney resigned from the case in June after receiving a judicial appointment, forcing Ervin to represent himself, Abron added.

She urged law schools and attorney and civil liberties groups to file friend of the court briefs supporting a defense motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the disruption law is unconstitutional.

Supporters of the Chattanooga 3 are also being asked to write or email Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox and Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey asking that the charges against Ervin, McGhee and Muhammad be dismissed.