St. Louis— The ACLU of Missouri calls on Mayor-Elect Tishaura Jones to begin her administration with an intention to address persistent First Amendment violations by the St. Louis City Police Department. Yesterday, a federal judge ordered City officers to stop enforcing two ordinances that restrict political activity in parks. If left unaddressed, several recent court decisions will force the City to defend the Department’s policies in upcoming trials. The incoming administration has an opportunity to resolve litigation facing the City collaboratively by adopting and enforcing policy changes to end the Department’s hostile mistreatment of protestors.
In yesterday’s decision, Judge John M. Bodenhausen said that the ordinances requiring written consent from the Parks Director before making speeches in a park and criminalizing “profane language” and “demeanor . . . tending to mar or disturb the feelings or enjoyment of the visitors attending public parks” violate long-standing Supreme Court precedents. The ACLU challenged the ordinances in a January lawsuit. This week’s decision highlights the need to address systemic issues hindering speech in St. Louis, a robust opportunity for the Jones’ administration to chart a new course.
Another ACLU case, which challenges the Department’s use of chemical munitions at protests, is heading to a jury trial post a decision on March 31st by another federal judge refusing the City’s request to toss the case. In that case, originating in 2015, the St. Louis Police Department deployed chemical munitions from a military-grade armored vehicle against legal observers who had engaged in legal observation following a police officer’s killing of Mansur Ball-Bey. The judge underscored that even police leadership knew they acted beyond their constitutional constraints, citing a police recording which captured then- St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson exclaiming, “What the f**k are they doing chasing them there?” as the armored vehicles drove down residential streets in pursuit of the legal observers.
City officers have engaged in similar conduct against protestors on more than a dozen other occasions, permitting a jury to “find that the City’s customs and practices permit officers to deploy chemical munitions in an indiscriminate and retaliatory manner in violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights.” From actions designed to block the right to record police officers, tactics that include kettling protestors, and the city’s lack of a process to facilitate protest and diminish arbitrary restrictions on speech, the ACLU has documented a critical need for reform.
Luz María Henríquez, Executive Director for the ACLU of Missouri, affirms “The lawsuits are not about money: they are intended to force St. Louis to adopt policies and training to undo the toxic police culture resulting in our city’s historic abuse of citizens advocating for racial justice and civil liberties. The voters made clear that they agree that the time for real change and accountability has arrived. We urge the new administration to stand with the people and demand that the police department stop the abuses protestors face in St. Louis, train officers to protect rather than abuse First Amendment rights and make the police department accountable to the public to ensure there is a permanent change.”
A list of recent ACLU filings against the City of St. Louis can be found below.