Calling it an assault on their First Amendment rights, an Oak Ridge organization has again asked a federal court to order officials to remove a fence that blocks an area long used for protests, vigils, and demonstrations in front of the Y-12 National Security Complex.
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, which opposes Y-12’s nuclear weapons production work, filed the preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Friday. The lawsuit, which amends a complaint filed in April, names new U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as the sole defendant.
OREPA wants the U.S. Department of Energy to reopen a small grass field near Y-12’s main entrance at East Bear Creek and Scarboro roads before an annual Aug. 6 demonstration. If it is left in place, the temporary fence erected April 1 would cause “irreparable harm” to First Amendment rights—including the rights of free speech, peaceful assembly, and the ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances, OREPA said.
The National Nuclear Security Administration announced plans to erect the fence in March. A separate DOE agency, the NNSA said it was responding to three trespassing incidents involving five people at Y-12 in the past year, including the July 28 security breach. The temporary fence was erected in early April.
But OREPA alleges the fence, which runs from Bear Creek Road to New Hope Road and encloses the New Hope Center, was meant to prevent members of its nonprofit organization from gathering in their traditional protest spot near the large, green billboard-like Y-12 sign on Scarboro Road.
“The National Nuclear Security Administration launched a brazen assault on our First Amendment right to free speech and free assembly,” OREPA coordinator Ralph Hutchison said in a press release this week. “We believe the First Amendment is more powerful than NNSA’s bogus security claim, and we expect the courts to grant the relief we seek.”
OREPA wants the fence removed before the annual Aug. 6 demonstration to allow for the Names and Remembrance Ceremony, which commemorates the anniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, near the end of World War II. Uranium enriched at Y-12 was used in that bomb, called “Little Boy.”
“It is important to bear witness here, in the place that gave birth to the bomb, to call the world to remember, to join our voices with the survivors of the bombings to say, ‘Never Again,’” Hutchison said. “No other place on earth has the same moment as this place, the front door of the bomb plant.”
A July 24 court hearing has been requested, and it could be held in Chattanooga, OREPA said.
The federal lawsuit has 21 plaintiffs, including the entire OREPA board of directors. OREPA is represented by Knoxville attorneys Francis Lloyd and John Eldridge.
OREPA said its members and others have used the Y-12 protest area for nuclear disarmament demonstrations, weekly Sunday vigils, peace rallies, and public education events in more than 700 gatherings during the past 25 years.
“Never once has an event been marred by any act of violence perpetrated by a member of OREPA,” the lawsuit said.
The NNSA has said OREPA could apply to use the publicly accessible New Hope Center for its vigils and demonstrations, but in response, OREPA has said that space is less visible, and it would require the group to request permission, pay fees, and secure insurance.
In its original complaint, filed in April, OREPA asked the U.S. District Court to order that the new temporary fence be removed before an annual spring demonstration.
But District Judge Curtis L. Collier questioned whether the court had jurisdiction to address the complaint filed by OREPA, its board members, and people affiliated with the organization. He gave the plaintiffs two weeks to explain why the federal court had jurisdiction or why the complaint should be amended.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Suzanne H. Bauknight and U.S. Attorney William C. Killian said then that the federal government has the right to close a previously open public forum such as the protest area at Y-12. They said the First Amendment does not guarantee access to property simply because it is owned or controlled by the government.
The NNSA has said the new fence—plans have called for installing a permanent fence later at a cost of about $150,000—is not designed to keep people from crossing it, but it will let them know they should not go any farther. Those who cross it will be subject to state and federal charges.
But OREPA said the previous three-strand barbed wire fence, set back farther from Scarboro Road than the new fence, was already half a mile or more from the weapon production facilities at Y-12, and no security threat has ever been launched from there. OREPA has suggested the NNSA replace the older three-strand barbed wire fence with a eight-foot-high chain link fence.
In April, Chuck Spencer, president and general manager of B&W Y-12, the plant’s managing and operating contractor, said officials stand behind the new fence as one of several necessary security improvements at Y-12.
“While past decisions to allow demonstrations in this area may have been sound at the time, the fact is that we are now a more frequent target of intentional and illegal trespassing than ever before,” Spencer said. “We fully expect that others will test our security systems, so we will work to continuously improve them.”