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Friday, August 15, 2014

First Amendment repealed in Ferguson, MO

Ronald K.L. Collins suggests (hopes?) we are about to enter a New York Times v. Sullivan moment in response to events in Ferguson, MO--broad free speech principles forged from public and media outrage and exposure of racial abuse by police and government officials. I am less sanguine, because I do not see either the government or individual officers being held to account or sanctioned in any way (legally or politically) for the massive restrictions on free expression that have been imposed in the last week. Collins may be correct that this may present an opportunity for the "admirably defiant spirit" of New York Times to "find its way back into the hearts and minds" of the public and for the public to demand that local government show greater respect for First Amendment rights. But these these events are not going to end with a resounding judicial affirmation of the First Amendment that will impose those obligations on government or sanction it for its past disregard.

Courts almost certainly will accept the government's assertions of public safety concerns and recent memories of rioting as justifying officers responding to seemingly peaceful, if angry, protests with riot gear and rubber bullets--these events illustrate Timothy Zick's thesis that public spaces are no longer for collective speech by large groups (My favorite detail: Police ordering people to return to their homes, then saying "Your right to assembly is not being denied"--oh, if you so say). The Eighth Circuit has never held that citizens or the media have a First Amendment right to record police in public spaces, so individual officers will enjoy qualified immunity for various incidents in which they have ordered citizens and journalists to stop recording, confiscated video equipment, or arrested people for recording. There is no evidence the city or county itself ordered officers to target people filming police--at best, municipal policy is silent. The federal government has already backed the local power play by declaring a no-fly zone over Ferguson, thus preventing television helicopters from recording activity from the air. DOJ has promised to conduct an investigation to see that justice is done,  but that seems more about the original shooting; otherwise, DOJ assistance has been with "crowd control" and urging citizens not to "antagonize" police. But that "antagonism" has, in large part, consisted of attempting to assemble and protest and to video police massively over-reacting to those attempts--so DOJ's advice is for people not to do the things they should have a constitutional right to do. And like southern officials 50 years ago, Ferguson and St. Louis County officials do not seem affected or shamed by public outrage over their conduct, do not seem to acknowledge having done anything wrong, and do not seem inclined to make any changes on their own accord.

Again, the public takeaway from this may be a reaffirmation of free speech ideals. But is that enough without some official declaration and application of those ideals?

Update: According to this story, things played out much differently Thursday night, under the leadership of Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ronald S. Johnson, a Ferguson native. There was no massive militarized police response to demonstrators and people were allowed to march and gather. And police officers were ordered to remove their gas masks. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon "vowed that officers would take a different approach to handling the massive crowds that have taken to Ferguson’s streets each night." (For those of you who teach Evidence, this would be an example of an inadmissible subsequent remedial measure).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 15, 2014 at 09:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

Comments

I'm happy about the response. Call it what you will, but it's a good response.

Posted by: AndyK | Aug 15, 2014 1:41:25 PM

Thanks, Howard, for the reference - and the link to my book! Ferguson is a classic example of the "militarization" of public places, which I discuss in Chapter 7. More broadly, as you note, the events highlight the nature and extent of the loss of public space for assembly, protest, etc. I'm not as optimistic as Ron Collins, although there does seem to be growing sentiment for de-militarizing suburban police forces. That would be a start . . .

Posted by: Tim Zick | Aug 18, 2014 4:17:27 PM

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