Hiram Patterson, whose name is on the federal complaint that stopped the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas on Wednesday, is a Confederate history buff who has very little idea what his complaint is about.
At the end of the day Wednesday, even after a federal judge had granted him a temporary restraining order stopping the removal, Patterson still hadn’t read the complaint.
“It was a very last-minute thing that the injunction was done and delivered,” he said. “I haven’t had much time to read anything.”
Patterson, a safety manager for a dental school, is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which the Southern Poverty Law Center does not include in its list of hate groups. The SCV claims a friendly relationship with a parallel northern group, the Sons of Union Veterans. The SUV refers to the SCV as “our Confederate cousins.”
But the complaint bearing Patterson’s name is another matter. It was written by Kirk Lyons, a lawyer in North Carolina. The Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a long and lurid sheet on Lyons, whom it identifies as a white supremacist with ties to many hate groups within the white nationalist movement. According to an SPLC report about Lyons and the Southern Legal Resource Center that Lyons co-founded:
Billing itself as a defender against "heritage violations" — attacks on the culture and symbols of the Confederacy — the SLRC was formed in 1996 by Lyons and his brother-in-law Neill Payne, and it has handled a number of cases involving the Confederate battle flag. But controversy has dogged the SLRC because of Lyons' extensive extremist background, which includes his infamous wedding at the Aryan Nations compound in a ceremony officiated by longtime Aryan Nations leader and Christian Identity preacher, Richard Butler. [See the full report below.]
Patterson says he knows nothing about Lyons. “Oh, I have no knowledge of this person,” he said. “I have never met him. Never heard of him before today.”
He said a member of SCV called him Wednesday and asked him to put his name on the complaint. “I went to work this morning, and Mr. Mark Brown, who is a member our local Sons of Confederate Veterans group who’s in charge of the emails and likes history and collects history, things like that, he said that they were going to file an injunction against the city of Dallas to prevent them from taking down the monument," Patterson said.
“Since the SCV as an organization could not be a complainant, he said that they really needed someone who lives in Dallas to do that. So I volunteered to do that.”
The Dallas City Council voted 13-1 Wednesday to immediately remove the Lee statue from Lee Park on Turtle Creek Boulevard. Only North Dallas council member Sandy Greyson voted to keep the monument in place. A crane was in place in Lee Park and crews already at work on the removal when the federal restraining order was delivered to the site and worked was halted late Wednesday.
Ironically, the complaint that spurred the restraining order turns on their heads most of the defenses made for the statue before the City Council on Wednesday. The principal defense for the statue has been that it honors history, avoiding controversial issues like slavery and the rebellion of the Southern states against the United States of America.
The complaint says the opposite. It makes a First Amendment freedom-of-speech argument based on the contention that the statue says the things that the City Council found objectionable with its vote Wednesday.
“The Confederate monument was erected to express a controversial political opinion,” the compliant states. “The city’s plan to remove the monument in a matter of hours is an imminent and unconstitutional attempt to curtail free speech by ordaining what mute political symbols must mean. The city’s planned suppression of the monument’s political speech is a first step in a totalitarian move to determine authorized forms of political communication and to punish unauthorized political speech.”
Professor Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law and a prominent commentator on First Amendment issues, said Thursday he didn’t see much weight in the free-speech argument. While there could be other issues not addressed in the complaint, such as ownership of the park or ownership of the statue, Carpenter said, the First Amendment argument alone didn’t have much staying power because the government has the same rights as an individual does to express an opinion.
“My conclusion is that the First Amendment claim as it stands is meritless,” he said. “It is true, as the complaint argues, that the government cannot pick and choose ideas that it likes and allow only those ideas to be expressed. That is true.
“However, as I understand in this case, this is a city-owned park and a city-owned statue.” He said that means the city has the right to keep or remove the statue and any speech or message implied by the statue.
“The statue is what the court would call government speech. It’s the government’s own speech. The government can discriminate on the basis of viewpoint when it’s the government itself that is speaking.
“It would be a different thing if someone put up a statue of Robert E. Lee in their backyard or even in their front yard, and the government said, ‘We’re going to remove all statues of Robert E. Lee on people’s private property because we regard those as objectionable.”
Patterson, the complainant, was a little fuzzy on the First Amendment questions Wednesday, not having read them. “I would say it’s quasi-political,” he said. “Basically, it’s considered as shutting down and shoving down a critical part of U.S. history never to be seen again.”
He seemed a bit overwhelmed by the pace of events since the morning phone call in which he agreed to sign the complaint.
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“The attorney representing us called me later and asked me for my information," Patterson said. "It wasn’t until later this afternoon that I heard that it had actually been executed. I know it was filed in federal court down at the capitol building. It went from there, with people calling me at home and other places.”
He said he did not know how his employer might react to this new public role. “I’m sure they wouldn’t want the attention.” He said his role in the litigation was “done totally outside the realm of work.”
So far, Patterson said, he has had “no trouble at all. Just, you know, an unexpected bolt out of the blue. When things like that happen, you pull yourself together and do what you can to answer everyone’s questions.”