Judge rules arrests unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment
Jacqueline Greene and Jocelyn Rosnick, Ohio NLG Co-Coordinators
October 27, 2017
CLEVELAND, OHIO ― On October 20, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Charles L. Patton dismissed all charges against 12 activists charged with ordinance violations of aggravated disorderly conduct and obstruction, who participated in a flag burning action during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in July 2016. Last fall, the protesters filed motions to dismiss the charges, arguing the arrests violated their First Amendment rights. The Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and Cleveland Branch of the NAACP organized legal defense for protesters during and after the RNC, along with 40+ local attorneys who volunteered pro bono.
Due to past First Amendment repression of RNC/DNC protesters, the Ohio NLG prepared legal support ahead of the convention, including training and recruiting Legal Observers and, establishing a jail support network, and coordinating an arrest hotline. In June 2016, the Ohio NLG received more than a dozen reports of local and federal law enforcement in the Cleveland area conducting “door knocks” at the homes of local activists. In response, the NLG and NAACP alerted the public and conducted “know your rights” trainings.
Burning the flag has long been indisputably recognized as a free speech activity, protected by the First Amendment. At a January 2017 hearing on these motions, Chief of Police Calvin Williams acknowledged that flag burning was legal, citing Supreme Court precedent.
“Judge Patton made the right decision in declaring these arrests unconstitutional and dismissing all charges, as the City of Cleveland targeted and arrested activists legitimately engaged in free speech,” said attorney Jacqueline Greene, co-coordinator of the Ohio NLG chapter and one of the attorneys representing the charged activists. “This should be read as a clear message to the City – and particularly to the police – that they must respect the First Amendment rights of protesters, whatever their message.”
“Our freedoms of speech and assembly are bedrock principles of this county. The City of Cleveland was obligated under the law to protect the rights of protesters; instead it charged them with crimes in retaliation for their speech, in an attempt to cover up the unconstitutional actions of the police. Such egregious attacks on our democratic principles cannot be tolerated,” said Sarah Gelsomino, an Ohio NLG attorney who also provided representation.
“We are thrilled that the Court saw these arrests for what they were: quashing dissent. We are proud of what we did at the RNC and that we stood up to the suppression of speech. Dismissal was the only just outcome after we suffered from the City of Cleveland’s aggressive arrests, days in detention, and almost a year and a half of ongoing prosecution—when we had committed no crime,” said Noche Diaz, one of the 12 protesters whose charges were dismissed.
The events leading to these arrests and subsequent criminal charges occurred during the RNC, held in Cleveland from July 18 through 21, 2016. On the afternoon of July 20, dozens of protesters gathered near East 4th Street and Prospect Avenue with the purpose of burning an American flag as an expression of their political views in protest of the Republican Party and then-presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Every single criminal charge against RNC protesters has now been dismissed. In January 2017, the City of Cleveland dismissed criminal charges against two other RNC Protesters, including Gregory “Joey” Johnson, defendant in the 1989 Supreme Court case that declared flag burning to be protected speech activity under the First Amendment. In September, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O’Malley dropped all felony charges filed against two protesters who also participated in the flag burning. The two protesters were charged with assaulting a police officer, obstruction, and resisting arrest.
“We stood at the gates of the RNC the same day Donald Trump was selected as the Republican candidate for president. We burned the American Flag and declared ‘America was Never Great!’ The State targeted us for our message and stopped us from exercising our rights in sounding the alarm on the unfolding nightmare of the Trump/Pence fascist regime,” Johnson said.
The National Lawyers Guild was formed in 1937 as the nation’s first racially integrated bar association to advocate for the protection of constitutional, human and civil rights.
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