from the cops-just-out-there-proving-protestors'-points dept
Police agencies reacted predictably. Rather than dial back their aggression in response to vocal complaints about their aggression, they gave protesters everything they wanted: more violence. This wasn’t limited to local agencies with limited manpower and resources. President-for-far-less-than-life Donald Trump flooded “anarchist jurisdictions” with federal officers who were just as capable of violating rights and demonstrating law enforcement’s preference for force deployment in response to peaceful demonstrations.
There was no endgame. The cops never had the upper hand. But they did confirm the public’s worst fears about them: that self-preservation was perhaps the only motivation for their actions. And their actions confirmed what has been obvious for more than 100 years: cops exist to maintain the status quo for whites with enough money to matter.
Being terrible and shortsighted may win the admiration of your comrades-in-arms, but it hurts in the long run. Following the response to anti-police protests, multiple cities and government agencies started feeling the heat. Clippy popped up on plenty of government computers, noting “It looks like you’re being sued. Would you like help?”
Help isn’t on the way. The city of Florence, Alabama is one the latest to be sued for allowing cops to be bigoted brutes in response to protests complaining about cops being bigoted brutes.
An activist group is suing the city of Florence for violating members’ freedom of speech and assembly.
“I’m hoping that Florence is a safe space for people to exercise their first amendment rights,” said Camille Bennett, the founder of Project Say Something.
PSS is a local nonprofit aimed at fighting racial injustice. The group is suing the city of Florence over the city’s response to more than 160 protests that took place in 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd and the Confederate monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse.
“I think our leadership has struggled to accept change and to accept revolution,” said Bennett.
In a 30-page lawsuit, PSS claims the city and its police department inconsistently enforced city ordinances, effectively violating the constitutional rights of protestors.
For reasons left unexplained, WAAY 31 (an ABC affiliate) decided readers should have no access to the federal complaint filed by Project Say Something. But that’s why you read Techdirt. We deliver the goods. The complaint [PDF] is viewable below and downloadable at the [PDF] link.
So, what does it allege? The usual, at least in terms of how cops responded to people complaining about cops: a bit of the old ultraviolence. In this case, the city leveraged a protest law to violate the First Amendment rights of protesters.
The plaintiffs allege they held between 160-175 protests from June 2020 to the end of the year. They also allege they’ve held far fewer protests in 2021 because the city has unconstitutionally wielded a law to deter further protests against law enforcement violence.
In 2021, PSS organized fewer protests because the City and its police department used the City’s parade permit and noise ordinances to discourage Plaintiffs from exercising their First Amendment rights.Specifically, [Police Chief Ron] Tyler used his discretion under the parade permit ordinance to relocate Plaintiffs away from their intended audience on Court Street to a “protest zone” at the intersection of Court Street and Tennessee Street. From the “protest zone”—over one block away from Plaintiffs’ desired protest location—Plaintiffs could not be seen by their intended audience and risked violating the noise ordinance if they wanted to be heard from that distance.
Additionally, Tyler leveraged his discretion under the noise ordinance to threaten that he would issue citations to Plaintiffs. The City’s law enforcement officers have given inconsistent guidance to Plaintiffs on how they can comply with the ordinances, forcing them to conduct silent protests for fear of breaking the law.
This was a plain misreading of the law by Police Chief Ron Tyler. As the complaint notes, the law only refers to the playing of recordings, not the vocal protests of demonstrators.
The noise ordinance further provides that it is unlawful to “operate or play any radio, musical instrument, or similar device, whether from a motor vehicle or by a pedestrian, in such a manner as to be plainly audible to any person other than the player or operator of the device at a distance of five (5) feet in the case of a motor vehicle or ten (10) feet in the case of a pedestrian.” § 15-27(a). The ordinance does not apply to the unamplified human voice.
This is clearly a terrible law. Even if it’s somehow constitutional to restrict speech at certain volumes in certain areas, the application of a law governing sonic emissions from vehicles and pedestrians to protesters registering their displeasure with their government by shouting is clearly unconstitutional.
The rest of the law may likely be unconstitutional, but that’s not what the court is being asked to examine. What the court is being asked to consider is whether a law like this can be used to literally silence criticism of the government.
On top of that, there’s the “parade” law, which turns any group of three or more into a “parade” once they become mobile. Stationary protests should not be subject to this law, but the Florence police chief apparently feels otherwise. Without payment of a $10 fee, all “parades” that involve no more than three protesters on the move are considered illegal. Once again, this appears to be an unconstitutional restriction on speech that serves no other purpose than to allow the government to easy quell anti-government speech and deter future protests.
Like any law, enforcement is discretionary. And the Florence police chief used his to deter future protests against his officers and police violence in general.
On July 27, 2020, Tyler leveraged his discretion to issue permits to divert Plaintiffs from protesting near their intended audience, writing: “[I]f you apply for a permit [on a particular] block during the busiest hour of restaurant traffic, on two of the busiest days, I would not be inclined to approve it, but would request you consider [another] block . . . , where there are fewer restaurants.” The Plaintiffs were redirected to a designated “protest zone” at the intersection of Court Street and Tennessee Street located over one block from their preferred location in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse on Court Street.
In 2020, PSS requested to block off a street for protests. The City conditioned supplying police for blocking the street on payment of a $360 police protection fee per day. PSS was unable to pay this daily sum and the request for permits was denied.
The City’s parade permit ordinance requires a $10 application fee but does not authorize police protection fees.
Restrictions on speech (time, place, etc.) can be lawful if they’re consistently applied. The allegations from this group indicate the law hasn’t been consistently applied and that the police chief (with the implicit blessing of the city) is harnessing the letter of the law to thwart protests against cops… all while ignoring the spirit of these laws.
This isn’t going to work out well for the Florence Police Department. Unless it can show it has treated other protesters the same way under the same laws, it’s going to look like a targeted attack on speech the government (in the form of the PD) does not approve of. And that’s going to cost the city a fair amount of tax dollars if the protesters succeed.
Government agencies with vast amounts of power have plenty of opportunities to respond to speech with more (and amplified) speech. Unfortunately, the first instinct of far too many government agencies is to silence speech, rather than respond with (protected) speech of their own. The short term effects may favor the violators of the Constitution, but the long-term effects almost always favor the people these entities refuse to responsibly or adequately serve.