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Three-decade-old Supreme Court ruling key to protest lawsuit

A Supreme Court ruling nearly three decades old is being cited to challenge police actions during street protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

It’s a case with potential implications for how authorities across the country deal with potentially escalating protests, including those ongoing Thursday in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge, La.

Rev. Melissa Bennett and KB Frazier, two high profile activists, are challenging a St. Louis County, Mo., ordinance they believe is so broad that it covers activities that are constitutionally protected, including the First Amendment right of free speech.

Bennett and Frazier were accused of “walking and standing in the roadway after being warned not to do so by the police officer,” according to the citation. They were arrested in October 2014, charged in July the following year, but the charges were dropped in August.

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, is dismissive of the claims being made in the lawsuit, and more generally critical of the Ferguson protesters.

Police officers were under siege from people not engaged in free speech, but “blocking roads and making human shields for those throwing Molotov cocktails," Roorda told AMI Newswire. 

“There was no free speech element, but it is a typical lament,” Roorda said. “Those arrested were the worst of the worst. They were not arrested for holding a sign or camping out, they were engaged in blatant criminal behavior.”

Roorda, and his union, are also frustrated that charges are being dropped against some protesters, including Bennett and Frazier. He accused prosecutors of “chickening out.”

The St. Louis County ordinance states: “It is unlawful for any person to interfere in any manner with a police officer or other employee of the County in the performance of his official duties or to obstruct him in any manner whatsoever while performing any duty.”

The suits cite the 1988 Supreme Court judgment Hill v. Houston, which ruled in favor of a plaintiff arrested for shouting at police officers arresting a fellow protestor. The suit argues the use of words such as “in any manner” and the words obstruct and interfere is overly broad.  

“A municipal ordinance that makes it unlawful to interrupt a police officer in the performance of his duty is substantially overbroad and therefore invalid on its face under the First Amendment,” the justices concluded.

The Houston ordinance “accords the police unconstitutional enforcement discretion, as is demonstrated by evidence indicating that, although the ordinance's plain language is violated scores of times daily, only those individuals chosen by police in their unguided discretion are arrested.”

If the plaintiffs are successful in the Ferguson case, it could affect dozens of criminal cases arising out of protests following the August 2014 death of Brown. While ordinances differ across the country, it could also inspire lawsuits elsewhere.

“Police believe that not doing what they say to do is illegal, and ordinances like this that are vague enough to encompass a whole range of human behavior, encourage the police to believe this,” Brendan Roediger, a St. Louis University law professor and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the St. Louis Dispatch. Professor Roediger did not respond to a number of emails sent by AMI Newswire.

Similarly, St. Louis County had not responded to a call and email for comment by the time of publication.

But in an earlier court hearing, Assistant County Counselor, Carl W. Becker said the ordinance does not violate freedom of speech.

“They could have yelled and screamed to their heart’s content,” he told St. Louis County Circuit Court. This isn’t a free speech issue.”

It’s when they walked into the roadway, against the orders of police, that they violated the ordinance, Becker told the court. The next hearing is listed for Sept. 1.