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Confederate Monument Law Upheld By Alabama Supreme Court

A man looks at a Confederate monument in Linn Park this summer in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama's attorney general sued the city of Birmingham in 2017 for covering the inscriptions at the base of the monument.
Hal Yeager
Getty Images
A man looks at a Confederate monument in Linn Park this summer in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama's attorney general sued the city of Birmingham in 2017 for covering the inscriptions at the base of the monument.

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

Alabama's Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the city of Birmingham broke state law when it ordered plywood screens be placed around the base of a Confederate monument in 2017.

The 9-0 ruling by Alabama's high court reversed a ruling by a lower court that was favorable to the city.

The Jefferson Circuit Court ruled in January that Alabama's law protecting historical monuments was ambiguous and that it also violated the city of Birmingham's right to free speech.

The Alabama Supreme Court said the lower court erred when it ruled that the municipality had constitutional rights to free speech. In its ruling, the high court ordered the circuit judge to "enter an order declaring that the [city's] actions constitute a violation" and also imposed a fine of $25,000 against Birmingham.

The fine could have been much stiffer, as Alabama law calls for a payment of $25,000 "for each violation." However, in his 46-page opinion, Alabama Justice Tommy Bryan cited precedent and the "ambiguous" question about the penalty provision.

"The State contends that this part of the penalty provision is ambiguous because it does not clearly indicate whether the legislature intended "only the initial act of erecting the plywood screen [as the sole] 'violation' within the meaning of the Act, or whether each day the public is prevented from viewing the expressive content of the monument [should be counted as] a separate violation.


"A single fine in this amount for an intentional violation of the statute, after over two years of litigation, seems to be a minute deterrence for the same or similar future conduct."

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement that the Supreme Court ruling was "the correct conclusion," adding: "The Supreme Court's ruling is a victory for the Alabama law which seeks to protect historical monuments. The City of Birmingham acted unlawfully when it erected barriers to obstruct the view of the 114-year-old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Linn Park."

The city of Birmingham continues to disagree with this position.

In a statement late Wednesday, Rick Journey, director of communications in the Office of Public Information for the city of Birmingham, said, "We are strongly disappointed with the ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court. This ruling appears to be less about the rule of law and more about politics. We are carefully reviewing the opinion to determine our next step, but clearly the citizens of Birmingham should have the final decision about what happens with monuments on Birmingham city grounds."

The legal battle over the Confederate monument began more than two years ago when Alabama filed a lawsuit against Birmingham. The suit claimed the city was violating the 2017 Alabama Memorial Preservation Act.

That law protects against the removal, relocation or altering of long-standing symbols of the Confederacy, including the names of buildings or streets that have been in place more than 40 years.

As NPR's Ian Stewart reported in January, when Birmingham officials ordered that the enclosure be built, it came "amid a national reckoning on racial violence and Confederate symbolism [and] the city's mayor decided the monument should be covered up. Tall plywood walls were installed around its base, obscuring inscriptions on the pedestal."

According to court documents, the east corner of the monument's base reads: "In Honor of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors." And on another side, "The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives."

Much of the 52-foot obelisk can been seen poking above the plywood enclosure. But the court's opinion adds:

"Photographs of the monument included in the record taken before and after the placement of the plywood screen confirm that the 12-foot plywood screen around the base of the monument completely blocks the view of all inscriptions on the monument."

Read the full opinion here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 26, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly gave Ian Stewart's first name as Jan.
Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.