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Free Speech Scores a Hat Trick

Freedom of speech had a hat trick of victories last week, proving that despite the interest of law enforcement and other machinations of the state to put down protesters, ultimately, the law still sides with activists.

Freedom of speech had a hat trick of victories last week, proving that despite the interest of law enforcement and other machinations of the state to put down protesters, ultimately, the law still sides with activists. On Wednesday, the University of California settled with 21 students who sued after campus police hosed them with pepper spray during a demonstration. Images from UC Davis became iconic, particularly the photo showing an officer casually spraying peacefully sitting demonstrators as if he were watering a lawn. Each student will receive $30,000 and a written apology from the chancellor, according to the agreement. Additionally, the San Francisco Chronicle reports the settlement calls for UC Davis officials to work with civil liberties advocates on police policies.

The incident had a chilling effect on some students, but galvanized others to holding police accountable for their actions. One sophomore told the Chronicle that he avoided demonstrations after the event, saying “they had silenced me.” Another student of the University who recently graduated said that she hoped the suit would keep police clad in riot gear away from demonstrations. She told the Chronicle:

“I want to make sure that nothing like this happens again. The university still needs to work to rebuild students’ trust, and this settlement is a step in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, a Federal District Judge ruled that the city’s use of criminal trespass laws to disperse Occupy Austin activists violated their First Amendment rights. Last fall, police in Austin issued a notice demanding activists in Occupy Austin stop serving food in the park they were camping in after dark, and arrested two individuals and charged them with criminal trespass. In addition, Rodolfo Sanchez and Kristopher Sleeman were told by police after they were freed that they were banned from the park. Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that the policy was “unconstitutional on its face,” stating that it “does not serve as a valid time, place, and manner restriction and is not narrowly tailored to achieve a significant public interest.”

Finally, a judge dismissed charges against 92 demonstrators arrested in Chicago last October for trying to set up an encampment in Grant Park. More than 300 were arrested in two weekends of protests, most of who opted for a deal with the city. However, 92 opted to fight the charges outright on the grounds they were unconstitutional. Demonstrators were charged with violating the city’s park curfew ordinances.

Cook County Court Judge Thomas Donnelly ruled that the curfew was unconstitutional and restricted free assembly, saying:

“Grant Park’s history makes clear: it constitutes the quintessential public forum. Indeed, it was dedicated as ‘a public square, accessibly at all times to the people.’ Because Grant Park, as we have seen, provides the only logical and realistic place for such assemblies, the Curfew fails to allow ample alternative channels for such large late-night assemblies.”

Predictably, in the cases of both Austin and Chicago, city officials are not pleased. City public information officer Reyne Telles told the Austin Chronicle their legal staff is looking into a possible appeal, and Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed to appeal the ruling. Emanuel said that the judge’s ruling compared “apples and oranges” when it referenced the 2008 victory party for President Barack Obama as a case where the city let park curfew rules lapse.

All of these ruling show despite the state’s interest in attempting to suppress activists, the law still remains on the side of free speech and expression. It remains to be seen whether or not these rulings will affect the way demonstrations and protests are policed nationwide, particularly in relation to the violent tactics law enforcement have used and the liberal deployment of “less than lethal” weapons. One can hope, however, that this will at least give pause to city officials and law enforcement nationwide that free speech cannot be treated as criminal activity.

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