Louisiana’s Supreme Court has ruled 6–1 that a Black Lives Matter organizer can be sued by a police officer for injuries the officer suffered in a Baton Rouge protest in 2016.
DeRay Mckesson was not responsible for inflicting the injuries on the officer. According to the officer, when police confronted protesters on a roadblock, Mckesson struck him with concrete or thrown rocks. He then suffered serious head injuries. Mckesson is civilly responsible for Mckesson’s actions. Mckesson was not directly responsible for the injuries, but the officer claims Mckesson ought to have known about the potential violence that could result from the protest Mckesson organized.
Mckesson claimed that Mckesson was engaged in First Amendment protected speech, and therefore cannot be sued. It was a long and winding case through the federal courts. hereIn a series tweets from Raffi Melkonian, a Houston lawyer. The Supreme Court accepted it, and sent it back to Louisiana to determine if it could settle the legal issues before it addressed the First Amendment.
However, Friday’s decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court means that the Supreme Court might need to examine the case. Mckesson can be civilly held because the majority of judges ruled that it is state law that states citizens are obligated not to “negligently precipitate” crime.
However, Louisiana’s Supreme Court did not actually decide Mckesson responsible. That part is still to come. It was to decide whether Mckesson’s state-law police officer can bring a civil suit against him. However, there are potential First Amendment implications. Mckesson was not telling protesters to throw stones at the police, but freedom of speech does allow them the right. Justice Piper Griffin, her sole dissenter, warned about the possible chilling effects of this and other serious consequences.
There is no denying that protests are a morally important part of our society. It is also true that protests which turn violent may not only result in injuries to police and bystanders but also damage to businesses and property—deterring such outcomes is sound policy. The finding of the duty will not only have an impact on protests, but it may also chill them in general. Nothing prevents bad actors from participating in peaceful demonstrations and engaging in violence. The organizers of protests in this instance may not be held liable by the trier-of-fact, but the legal costs associated with defending lawsuits at trial are substantial.
You can also find the Online Criminal Justice and Election Magazine BoltsDaniel Nichanian notes that these are part of an ongoing trend in trying to curb protests, holding participants and organizers legally responsible for troublemakers. He wrote:
Police investigated a Utah senator in 2020 for allegedly donating money to a fund that Black Lives Matter protesters used to buy red paint that they spilled in front of the district attorney’s office. Also in 2020, police in Portsmouth, Virginia, filed charges against local Black leaders, including a state senator, who were present at a rally where people toppled a Confederate statue. Although Stephanie Morales is Black and was also being tried by the police to dismiss her, she prevailed over them all and won the case.
It’s always worthy of noting how profoundly different courts treat police officers when the shoe is on the other foot—when police conduct results in innocent people being harmed. Police officers are often exempted from civil liability due to qualified immunity. This is because they can be personally responsible for violating civil rights of citizens, harming their property, and/or causing them injury. Billy Binion reported last year that Shreveport officers were protected against a lawsuit because a man pulled them over for breaking brakes and removing license plates lights.
This case showed that the victims were injured by police officers, but the courts have shielded them from any consequences. Compare that to Mckesson’s situation and you will see that the laws that apply to police officers differ from those that are applied to citizens they protect.