In August 2018, Sarah Townsend went to the Mobil Gas Station on West Florissant in Dellwood in order to buy gasoline and a soda. There, while Townsend was at a gas pump, a man using a manual wheelchair approached her and engaged her in conversation. While they were chatting, Officer T. Williams of the North County Police Cooperative pulled up. Officer Williams prepared to arrest the man but wouldn’t say why.
Disturbed, Townsend began video recording the interaction on her cell phone. She told Officer Williams the man had not been a bother to her. She complied with the officer’s instructions and calmly asked him why he was carrying out the arrest.
Officer Williams was not calm. First, he grabbed Townsend’s phone out of her hand and threw it forcefully into her car. After Townsend retrieved the phone and continued recording, Williams stalked across the parking lot to confiscate the phone, turn it off, pocket it, and hurl expletives at Townsend, threatening her with arrest.
Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the First Amendment Clinic at Washington University School of Law filed suit against Officer Williams for violating Townsend’s First Amendment rights.
“Criticizing the government and recording police officers as they carry out their public duties is protected by the First Amendment,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Effective oversight of government by the public is the very reason the First Amendment exists.”
“Sarah Townsend acted appropriately,” said Lisa Hoppenjans, director of the First Amendment Clinic. “Her brave attempt to exercise her rights was met with conduct that was not just unprofessional but also unconstitutional. Our Constitution does not allow this type of retaliation.”