The Indiana Civil Liberties Union and a group of eight Indiana activists scored a victory last week when U.S. District Court Judge John Tinder issued summary judgment on First Amendment grounds against Indianapolis Police Department Lt. Michael O'Connor for interfering with a lawful protest. The case stemmed from an August 2003 protest carried out during the National Governor's Association meeting, when a group of about 25 marchers were blocked by a group of police officers, led by O'Connor, from walking across Monument Circle during their march, and directed on a different route. Tinder's decision noted that the marchers followed all traffic laws and were causing no disruption during their protest.
ICLU attorney Ken Falk said that he hoped the ruling would set a precedent for other cases involving protest and political dissent.
"It's a matter of concern around the country about the suppression of dissent," Falk said. "And I think the judge in very eloquent terms laid out the importance of the First Amendment in protecting dissent."
In his judgment, Tinder wrote, "An ordinary police officer should have recognized that such interference was unwarranted and unconstitutional. If a group of demonstrators as small, quiet and peaceful as Plaintiffs' can be herded through the city on such shaky grounds as a 25 second traffic signal and a vague fear that someone, somewhere might cause a civil disturbance, then not only would Plaintiffs lose this case, but the Constitution's promise would be as hollow as a snare drum."
Falk said the decision secured First Amendment protection for nonviolent dissent.
"The larger issue is, when can the government obstruct peaceful protest?" Falk said. "[O'Connor] admitted that he would not provide a similar escort to a similar number of shoppers. He knew these people were protestors ... Since these were peaceful people on public sidewalks not disrupting traffic, the court said that the government couldn't bar their activities based on what might have happened."
Damages have not yet been determined, nor has a date for that hearing been set. Calls for comment to the city's counsel office were not returned.
This is the first of four ICLU lawsuits that grew out of the 2003 NGA protests to reach a resolution. The others, still pending, involve the holding and searching of individuals, and a raid against Solidarity Books that Falk alleges was intended to disrupt plans to organize protests.