City laws and policies all but guarantee ongoing police-protestor conflicts

ST. LOUIS -- The ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit today against the city of St. Louis on behalf of a protestor unconstitutionally arrested during the 2017 Women’s March.

After being arrested, Jessica Langford was transported, booked, and detained in jail for some nine hours for not moving onto a sidewalk when police demanded she do so, even though she was not blocking any traffic. The arrest happened after the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department arbitrarily decided to end First Amendment expression while Langford was marching with others along Market Street.

Langford was among 13,000 people who participated in the march.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a St. Louis ordinance that criminalizes blocking traffic and failing to obey police orders without protecting speech on streets and sidewalks under any circumstances.

The ordinance is overbroad and vague under the First Amendment and violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The city of St. Louis also does not issue permits for protests, virtually guaranteeing future First Amendment violations of citizens.

“St. Louis will continue to violate the law until its leaders proactively address the city ordinance and the lack of accountability in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department,” said Tony Rothert, legal director, ACLU of Missouri. “People must be able to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

This is the third lawsuit in two years the ACLU has filed against St. Louis because of unconstitutional treatment of protestors by police officers.

In September 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit focusing on police misuse of pepper spray, tear gas, and other uses of force, interference with video of police activity, and violations of due process during the protests following the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.

After a hearing in that lawsuit, a federal judge put temporary limits on police use of chemical agents, stopped the police department from using the traffic-blocking ordinance to retaliate against protestors, and limited another problematic city ordinance curtailing speech rights.

In September 2017, the ACLU also filed a lawsuit against St. Louis and for police misconduct during a 2015 protest following the killing of Mansur Ball-Bey by a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer. Officers engaged in retaliation and used excessive force by deploying tear gas and pepper spray from a tactical vehicle at a small group of peaceful observers after the demonstration had dispersed.

“St. Louis must show leadership and proactively address the ongoing and frequent violations of the Constitution by its police department,” said Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director, ACLU of Missouri. “The people deserve to exercise their constitutional rights without fear of retaliation, excessive force, or unlawful arrest.”

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