Secessionist gathering authorized Sunday at SC Statehouse

AP Photo/Bruce Smith

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A Statehouse gathering commemorating South Carolina’s 1860 secession from the Union will be held Sunday, after state officials reinstated a permit they canceled a week ago.

Gov. Nikki Haley said Friday she asked the state Department of Administration to reinstate the Secessionist Party’s reservation.

“The governor believes that the Statehouse grounds belong to all people, whether she agrees with their views or not,” said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams. “She also believes that people’s constitutional rights mean something, and that certainly includes the rights to free speech and free assembly.”

Secessionist Party founder James Bessenger called the permit’s reinstatement a victory for the First Amendment. His group had threatened to sue the state.

Bessenger applied Oct. 28 to hold a Sovereignty Day Rally on the 155th anniversary of South Carolina adopting its Ordinance of Secession. Permission for the rally was granted last month, but the reservation was canceled Dec. 10 after the Department of Public Safety raised security concerns, according to documents from the Department of Administration.

“We have seen what can happen when opposing groups are allowed on Statehouse grounds,” DPS spokeswoman Sherri Iacobelli said last week.

Legislators have said state officials didn’t use common sense when they allowed the Ku Klux Klan and a group affiliated with the New Black Panther Party to hold overlapping rallies July 18 at the Statehouse, resulting in violence, despite a massive police presence.

Nolan Wiggins, the Department of Administration director who authorized the rallies, told legislators in July the decision came down to people’s free speech and assembly rights under the First Amendment.

But legislators faulted the agency for not even asking the opposing groups to rally on separate days or at least several hours apart.

No other group has applied to rally Sunday. Officials have not specified what other groups have threatened to demonstrate.

Bessenger said threats of violence from others should not preclude his group’s ability to gather.

“This was about the government not bowing down to radicals threatening violence,” he said. “This was about whether the government would set a precedent to be influenced, hijacked or blackmailed by threats.”

Bessenger said his group has nothing to do with hate.

The 27-year-old Army veteran said he founded the Secessionist Party in April out of frustration with Democrats and Republicans. The group’s platform includes abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, allowing South Carolina to deport anyone who is not in the country legally and opposing all gun control efforts.

Although the party is named for secession — and Bessenger says the party would welcome South Carolina’s secession from the U.S. — he says he doesn’t expect that to happen and won’t push for it.

While he sought permission to gather on the side of the Statehouse where the Confederate flag used to fly, Bessenger said the party discourages people from waving the rebel flag at its events.

“We don’t want to be associated with the things it implies. We don’t support discriminating against anyone,” he said. “We’re proud of our ancestors because they stood up to federal tyranny, but we want to be completely separate from the old Confederacy.”

He said the event was organized simply to mark a historic date, but interest has grown after the state rescinded the reservation.

DPS Director Leroy Smith also recommended the reinstatement Friday. While security concerns remain, “there are security measures that can be implemented” to try to address them, he wrote in a letter to the Department of Administration.

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