The city of Norfolk, Va., on Monday filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Virginia over a law blocking the removal of a Confederate statue from its downtown business district.
According to a state law enacted in 1904, public war memorials in the state can’t be taken down or altered, leaving local officials unable to act on an approved 2017 resolution aimed at moving the city-owned memorial — which was erected in 1907 and commemorates soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy — to a cemetery, according to the suit filed in the U.S. District Court in Norfolk.
While the resolution was approved by the city council, it vowed no action would be taken until the state preservation law was no longer standing, as a violation could lead to financial penalties.
Virginia’s law “purports to protect memorials related to wars and battles such as the Monument but does so in a way that takes away fundamental rights that belong to the City and its City Council,” Norfolk’s legislative body wrote in the lawsuit. “The purpose of this suit is to unbuckle the straitjacket that the Commonwealth has placed the City and the City Council in.”
The suit alleges that the law unconstitutionally restricts Norfolk’s right to free speech by compelling the city and its council to “indefinitely present a particular message” through the display of the monument, which is the “City’s speech.”
Altering that speech is “a right that the Commonwealth cannot take away,” the lawsuit said.
The Charlottesville City Council in March 2017 voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, spurring lawsuits against the city from critics who cited the preservation law. Later that year, white supremacists led a pro-Confederate statue rally in the city that turned deadly.
The incident led the Norfolk City Council to approve the resolution to move its own Confederate statue from its downtown business district.
The controversy comes amid intense national scrutiny over the public use of the Confederate flag and symbols of the Confederacy that was reignited by the Charlottesville rally. More than 30 U.S. cities have taken down or relocated Confederate statues and monuments in recent years.