April 10, 2023
At bond hearings recently held for people arrested while protesting the planned environmental degradation and increased policing in Atlanta, Georgia, prosecutors have made a number of alarming and specious arguments that function to criminalize not only constitutionally protected rights to speech and assembly, but also the exercise of various rights to legal counsel, support, and education. Notably, prosecutors argued that having a jail-support phone number written on one’s body constitutes evidence of criminal intent. This assertion is especially concerning given the escalating efforts by law enforcement and legislators to criminalize protest in the United States and, more specifically, to exact punishment of Cop City protesters, up to and including the police murder of forest defender Tortuguita.
Writing a jail support hotline number on one’s arm is not evidence of criminal intent; in fact, it is conduct protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Moreover, there is a long and well-documented history of law enforcement using indiscriminate arrests as a means of disrupting entirely lawful protest activity. That a person has written a legal-support hotline number on their arm is significant of their awareness that their own civil rights may be violated based on their participation in protest activity, however lawful.
Jail-support hotlines offer necessary, constitutionally protected resources to anybody who might have unwanted interactions with law enforcement; it is common practice to encourage protesters to access these hotlines for purposes of helping legal support to track arrests, inform arrestees of their legal rights and responsibilities, and connect detainees with legal counsel, to which they are entitled under the Sixth Amendment. People write these numbers on their arms in preparation for demonstrations precisely because they know they may be unjustly detained, and because they know that police use mass arrest as a form of crowd control that is calculated to disrupt protected speech.
All persons arrested are entitled to reach out to community support and legal counsel, regardless of the evidence of their guilt. Here, police arrested 23 individuals at a music festival — conduct entirely protected by the First Amendment — and held many in pretrial detention, punishing people for involvement in activist movements without conviction of any crime. Prosecutors have charged them, astonishingly, with domestic terrorism. It appears that prosecutors have endeavored to substitute evidence of constitutionally protected activity for probable cause or meaningful evidence of unlawful conduct. This is legally insupportable and an exercise in extreme bad faith.
For prosecutors to suggest that using a jail support hotline is evidence of criminal intent is a legally unsound argument, which falls afoul of the First Amendment prohibitions on state interference with political expression and association, as well as Sixth Amendment guarantees to counsel. These arguments operate to disrupt and chill legally protected speech and assembly, and to criminalize the practices of criminal defense, community support, and popular legal education.
In defense of the constitutionally protected speech and assembly outlined above, we are calling for the state of Georgia to drop all domestic terrorism charges against activists and festival attendees defending the Atlanta forest. Further, we are calling for an end to the alarming arguments against legal support hotlines.
That these arguments are being shamelessly made and uncritically accepted signals a crisis of the legal system that puts activists and allies under direct threat and scrutiny from the government. This trend warrants immediate, widespread condemnation by all members of the legal community, and all those who take seriously the constitutional obligations of the state and its agents.
- Human Rights Watch, US Program
- Amnesty International USA
- Climate Defense Project
- Amazon Watch
- Project South
- Water Protector Legal Collective
- National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL)
- Center for Constitutional Rights
- Defending Rights and Dissent
- Palestine Legal
- Fight for the Future
- Civil Liberties Defense Center
- Southern Center for Human Rights
- NLG Federal Anti-Repression Task Force
- Law for Black Lives
- Indivisible Georgia Coalition
- International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)
- James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership
- Texas Jail Project
- 18 Million Rising
- Direct Action Everywhere
- Impact Fund
- Peoples Collective for Environmental Justice
- Muslims for Just Futures
- Communities United Against Police Brutality
- Houston Abolitionist Collective
- Freedom of the Press Foundation
- Oil and Gas Action Network
- ICNA Council for Social Justice
- The Nia Foundation
- Restore the Fourth
- 350 Bay Area
- Portland Rising Tide
- Extinction Rebellion San Francisco Bay Area
- Grassroots Global Justice Alliance
- Agricultural Justice Project
- Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice
- Health Justice Commons
- UTHealth School of Public Health – Houston
- McFadden Law and Consulting, LLC
- The Elements of Mutual Aid
- West Street Recovery
- Law Office of George Lobb
- NLG Austin Chapter
- Wellstone Democratic Club
- Socialist Rifle Association
- California Nurses for Environmental Health and Justice
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