color photograph of an outdoor protest in New York City against Cop City in Atlanta. people wearing black and grey coats hold signs reading "Stop Kop City" and "Stop Environmental Racism"
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 09: Activists participate in a protest against the proposed Cop City being built in an Atlanta forest on March 9, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Thursday, July 27, a federal judge ruled in favor of four DeKalb County residents who sued the city of Atlanta earlier this month, arguing that they should be allowed to collect petition signatures because they live so close to the proposed facility. Under current rules, all petition signers and signature witnesses must be registered to vote in the city of Atlanta.

The preliminary injunction granted by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Howard Cohen not only bars the city of Atlanta from banning non-resident signature collectors but also extends the signature collection period, giving organizers until Sept. 25 to collect all signatures.

The court held that the DeKalb residents had met all four requirements for a preliminary injunction, including a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of their First Amendment claim. As the order states, “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.”

Such a restriction on “core political speech,” the court held, was subject to strict scrutiny, and the city did not demonstrate that residency requirements were narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, as required by constitutional law.

While the mayor’s office initially cooperated with the judge’s ruling and sent new petitions out almost immediately, they soon reversed course, filing a motion to stay the preliminary injunction while a decision is made on their planned appeal.

The city argues that because a referendum petition is a special kind of speech with direct political effect, it is not subject to a strict scrutiny standard. “The residency requirement does not prevent any individual from delivering any message about the safety training center to anyone they want, anywhere they want,” the motion states.

The city also argues that a referendum seeking to repeal a city ordinance is invalid under precedent set by Kemp v. Claxton, a 1998 case holding that referendum petitions are only valid for changes to municipal charters. “All an injunction does as [sic] this stage is cause unnecessary hassle, confusion and expense for a process that is ultimately futile under binding Georgia Supreme Court precedent,” the motion states.

Mary Hooks, tactical lead for the referendum, says they expect the same outcome from any appeal. “We’re disappointed that the Mayor’s office is choosing to waste tax dollars fighting to limit Atlanta residents’ democratic right to decide the fate of Cop City,” she said in an official statement.

A spokesperson for the Stop Cop City Referendum Coalition, who requested to withhold their name for safety reasons, noted that canvassers have already gathered more than 30,000 signatures and that the coalition plans to fully implement paid canvassing efforts next week. Furthermore, the coalition calculates that they need about 58,000 signatures to get on the ballot rather than 70,000, a downward estimate based on the number of registered Atlanta voters.

While the court’s ruling extended the window for collecting signatures to Sept. 25, a spokesperson for the coalition said they’re still aiming to collect all signatures by the original Aug. 14 deadline to secure a spot on the November ballot. However, if the coalition collects enough signatures by the new deadline, they may still succeed in getting the referendum on the March 2024 primary ballot.

An appeal and reversal by the 11th Circuit could make it more difficult to establish the legitimacy of certain signatures, especially with so much resistance from the city. However, a spokesperson said the coalition is doing everything it can to exceed the signature requirement. “We’re still aiming for 70,000 because we anticipate the city of Atlanta will do everything they can to throw out signatures.”

In a July 5 press conference, Mayor Andre Dickens stated that he did not believe the signature collection effort would be successful if “done honestly.” In an earlier response to the DeKalb County lawsuit, the city also argued that, even if the referendum were to succeed, repealing authorization for the lease could not retroactively cancel the lease itself, as doing so would be an “impermissible impairment of that contract” under Georgia constitutional law. Meanwhile, the 85-acre site is already being cleared.

Despite such staunch opposition from city officials, the coalition’s efforts have gotten a boost in recent weeks from a large donation by James “Fergie” Chambers, heir to the Cox media fortune. In a July 18 social media post, Chambers announced his severance from his family’s company and committed to making major donations, the first of which would be $600,000 split between two organizations that have been at the heart of the fight to stop the construction of Cop City: Community Movement Builders and the Atlanta Solidarity Fund.

“The battle to #StopCopCity & move forward the United Front of organizing for the people of ATL has only just begun,” Chambers wrote.

Katherine Demby is a writer based in Queens. She covers law, race, politics, and culture. You can find her on Twitter at @kaye_demz.