Black Lives Matter Organizer’s Appeal Rejected By Supreme Court, Why First Amendment Rights Are At Stake

The Supreme Court has made the decision to decline hearing an appeal from Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson. The outcome has sparked concerns about potential limitations on Americans’ First Amendment rights to protest against the government and police. 

Mckesson’s case, stemming from a protest in Baton Rouge following the 2016 killing of Alton Sterling, will now return to a lower court for further review. 

The incident in question unfolded amidst nationwide protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Lawyers representing an officer injured during the Baton Rouge protest argued that DeRay Mckesson’s organization of the event constituted negligence, making him liable for damages. They contended that the First Amendment does not shield organizers from legal claims if their actions are deemed “negligent, illegal, and dangerous.”

Furthermore, the lawyers also stated that the injured officer—who chose to go by John Doe, had lost teeth when the object was thrown and suffered injuries to his “brain and head.” 

Mckesson invoked a significant Supreme Court decision from 1982, which limited liability for protest organizers in analogous circumstances. The case, linked to the Civil Rights Movement, established a precedent protecting organizers from liability for damages incurred during protests. However, the officer involved in the Baton Rouge incident asserted that Mckesson’s actions were “reasonably foreseeable” and directly contributed to the violence.

Moreover, this legal battle has seen multiple rounds of review by the Supreme Court and lower courts. 

The majority 5th Circuit opinion stated: “This case would be different if all Mckesson had done was organize a lawful protest, and if an unidentified protester had nonetheless assaulted Doe. But that is not what Doe alleges happened. Rather, Doe alleges that Mckesson organized and led the protest in such a manner that his actions ‘were likely to incite lawless action.’”

The ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision extend beyond Mckesson’s case, raising broader questions about the balance between free speech rights and legal accountability in the context of protests. With the case returning to a lower court, the implications for future demonstrations and the exercise of First Amendment rights remain uncertain.

According to US Circuit Judge Don Willett, the majority’s position would “reduce First Amendment protections for protest leaders to a phantasm, almost incapable of real-world effect.”

Critics fear that this ruling could have a chilling effect on grassroots activism and hinder marginalized communities’ ability to organize and protest against injustices. As the legal battle continues, it underscores the ongoing tensions between civil liberties and the legal ramifications of organizing protests in America.

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