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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Suing over Monday's crowd dispersal

Here is what we know happened around 6:35 p.m. Monday next to Lafayette Square: Federal law-enforcement officials threw something (dispute whether it was tear gas or a smoke bomb) and pushed throw to move the crowd out of the area. Prior to that point, the crowd was lawfully gathered in a space that has been held to be a traditional public forum, was engaging in peaceful expressive activity, and not engaging in unlawful conduct. Attorney General Barr ordered federal officials to move the crowd, so the space was clear for the President to have his photo opportunity in front of the church. This was captured live on TV, as well as recorded on numerous phones. Federal officials also moved church personnel off of church property through tear gas or other device, presumably at the AG's command.

It looks like a significant violation of the First Amendment. But:

• We do not know the individual officers who threw the smoke/tear gas and there were too many officers in the phalanx. I suppose video forensics and FOIA might be able to identify. But any lawsuit would involve many Doe defendants and discovery to determine their identities.

• The plaintiffs could sue the AG on the theory that he directly ordered the unconstitutional behavior. This runs into Abassi and Iqbal, which seemed to limit if not foreclose Bivens claims against high-ranking officials on a supervisory theory. This case is different than Iqbal in that the supervisory conduct was a direct order to engage in First-Amendment-violative conduct in a specific situation, rather than enactment of general policies, making the causal connection more direct. I doubt that distinction would fly.

• It is not clear there is a Bivens action for free-speech violations. SCOTUS has assumed it several times, while most circuits have held there is. The Court may say that this is a different context (First Amendment, presidential security, massive protests) and thus find special factors counseling hesitation (presidential security, high-ranking official, etc.).

• Barr and any individual officers can claim that the security concerns provide a compelling interest justifying clearing the public forum of peaceful protesters, although any compelling interest in clearing space for a photo opportunity is a weaker argument. The talisman of national security may be sufficient to defeat any substantive First Amendment right.

• Even if this conduct violated the First Amendment, any defendant is likely to get qualified immunity. There is no precedent that places "beyond doubt" that the First Amendment is violated by the use gas/smoke to clear out peaceful protesters in a period of massive demonstrations so the president can do a photo opportunity. There certainly is no precedent making it beyond doubt that it is a violation for the AG to do it. The Court pays lip service to the legal rule that precise precedent is not required and that a right can be clearly established as a matter of general principle, but recent cases have, in practice, found immunity in the absence of substantially similar precedent. The two cases (Hope and Lanier) that have found rights clearly established on general principles involved egregious facts and were two decades ago. Is "gassing peaceful protesters in a public forum to allow a presidential photo op" the equivalent of selling foster children into slavery (Posner's famous example)? Probably not.

• Because the facts are unique and the absence of precedent obvious, a court likely would not touch the merits and would grant qualified immunity.

• No plaintiff would have standing to obtain declaratory or injunctive relief. They could not show imminent injury because they could not show both a substantial (or at least reasonable) likelihood that they would protest again and that the AG or federal officials would repeat their actions.

As someone said on a list serv, I hate writing this. But it is the law that we have at the moment. Maybe this case illustrates the urgency of the Court doing something about qualified immunity, outside the Fourth Amendment context.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 2, 2020 at 06:56 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

"The talisman of public health may be sufficient to defeat any substantive First Amendment right in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom."

I very much doubt the court would prevent standard large church services merely to prevent the spread of a disease which is already being spread by large gatherings outside the church for protest.

If the govt could prevent large church services (>100 people), then they could prevent large protests (>100 people) in front of that same church next to the white house--and soon they'd be shutting down the beaches, parks, and outdoor concerts.

Posted by: Doctor Fauci Faust | Jun 3, 2020 6:54:04 AM

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