Birmingham City Council

Questions Raised About Legal Protections for Historic Monuments in Court Hearing Over Linn Park’s Plywood Screen

Birmingham Mayor William Bell had the Confederate monument in Linn Park covered after protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent.

After nearly three hours of debate, lawyers for the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama left court Friday with homework instead of a ruling on the matter of the Confederate monument in Linn Park.

The city erected a plywood screen around the monument and sought to challenge a state law signed in May 2017 that protects monuments. But in court Friday, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Graffeo raised questions related to older laws dealing with Confederate monuments. He asked lawyers for the city to address his questions by May 4. Attorneys for the state will then respond.

The state sued the city after then-Mayor William Bell ordered the screen erected around the monument at the south end of Linn Park, at the intersection of Park Place and 20th Street.

Bell took the action in the wake of violent white supremacist protests and counterprotests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sued the city for covering the Confederate monument, citing the then 3-month-old Memorial Preservation Act.

During Friday’s hearing, lawyers for the city noted that then-City Council President Johnathan Austin had suggested removing the monument. Assistant city attorney Veronica L. Merritt quoted Bell’s response, “I want to comply with the law.”

Attorneys for the state argued that the plywood screen “alters and otherwise disturbs” the monument because passersby cannot read inscriptions on the base and thus don’t know what is being memorialized.

“Unless you have Superman eyes, you’re left to wonder what it is,” Graffeo told the lawyers.

City lawyers said it does not alter or disturb the monument because it doesn’t touch and isn’t supported by it.

State attorneys cited state law that established protections for monuments that have been in place on public property for at least 40 years. Birmingham’s Confederate monument has been in place since 1905.

A lawyer for the city said the matter should be in the hands of residents of Birmingham and Jefferson County. Graffeo reminded the attorney that Alabama does not have home rule.

Another bone of contention was a potential fine. State attorneys argued that a $25,000 fine should be assessed for each day the structure has surrounded the monument. If administered that way, the penalty would rise to more than $6 million, Graffeo said.

Lawyers for the city argued that if Graffeo did rule against the city, the fine should be assessed once.