United States: The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a Black Lives Matter activist who had used force against the officer injured during a protest in 2016, allowing a police officer injured by the activist to file a lawsuit against the current case participant, a U.S. citizen known for demonstrations and other civic activities crucial in the functioning of a democracy.

Legal Battle Over Baton Rouge Protest

Apart from not hearing a claim brought by DeRay McKesson, the justices have endorsed a lower court ruling taken up by police officer John Ford in a suit accusing him of negligence after a protest sparked by the fatal shooting of a Black man, Alton Sterling turned violent and he was struck by a rock, as reported by Reuters.

In a decision released by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2023, the verdict against McKesson was affirmed based on the claim that his rights to liberty of speech and assembly under the First Amendment of the US Constitution didn’t allow him to claim negligence.

McKesson was assisted by lawyers, including from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Precedent and Protest

Visual Representation of Protest in Baton Rouge. Credit | AP

The protest in Baton Rouge was only one of numerous demonstrations that had erupted in the US in 2015 and 2016 after different incidents involving police and the Black community. These events pre-dated the large racial justice protests that engulfed various cities in the USA and elsewhere since George Floyd, an innocent Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.

The 5th Circuit’s judgment allows Ford to hold protest leaders accountable for an attendee’s illegal act—an action, some legal scholars argue, that could restrict political or social activist groups from carrying out their fight against our society.

On 5 July 2016, Sterling was shot by a Baton Rouge police officer in the struggle outside a store where he sold homemade CDs. The death inflamed the town’s race relations. Four days later, the non-violent protest for accountability was carried out in the center of the police headquarters.

Amongst the officers who were ordered to arrest the protesters on this public road were Ford. But the unknown person threw concrete or rock at him, and so he lost his teeth and suffered head and brain injuries, as claimed by his lawsuit.

Ford’s case for damages argued that McKesson’s leading the breakaway made it obvious that it would end in a violent protest.

Mckesson was arrested immediately on the day, but the charge was dropped later.

In 2017, US District Judge Brian Jackson dismissed Ford’s case. However, the 5th District revived it in 2023 and held that the First Amendment does not bar negligence suits.

The 5th Circuit refused the claim that the lawsuit was forbidden by the 1982 Supreme Court decision in which Black civil rights movement members in Mississippi saw their liability restricted for their leadership role when it involved actions constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.

Historical Context

Judge Don Willett of the 5th Circuit told the story of the momentous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., to point out the plight of many black voters. Political movement, whether in the form of picketing or riots, has “been prescient in our history from the beginning,” Willett stated.

Willett wrote that by stating this, “theory would have enfeebled America’s street-blocking civil rights movement, imposing ruinous financial liability against citizens for exercising core First Amendment freedoms.”

McKesson’s case has visited the US Supreme Court once before. The Justices 2020 ordered the claim to be further reviewed by the courts of lower jurisdiction to ensure that Louisiana law allows Ford’s claim, as reported by Reuters.

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded as a reaction to the circumstances when, in February 2012, a Black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, was killed by a man named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The topic that these activists complain about is overly aggressive policing, mostly against Black and other colored people.