Civil Liberties

In Ferguson, Legal Observers Fight for Rights of Protesters

ACLU and others closely monitor police behavior


Aaron Malin

As protests surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown intensify in Ferguson and throughout the St. Louis area, a crack team of lawyers and legal observers are prepared to respond to respond to illegitimate police activity. The National Lawyers Guild and other groups have sent hundreds of lawyers to Ferguson in recent weeks, and they have worked closely with the ACLU of Missouri, which has hosted local training sessions for legal observers.

They have also pursued aggressive legal action to protect the rights of protesters and journalists. In August, the ACLU reached an agreement with law enforcement authorities that "the media and members of the public have a right to record public events without abridgement unless it obstructs the activity or threatens the safety of others, or physically interferes with the ability of law enforcement officers perform their duties." They also filed a lawsuit to prevent the police from interfering with journalists, and obtained three court orders on November 21 which "permanently enjoined [police] from interfering with individuals who are photographing or recording at public places but who are not threatening the safety of others or physically interfering with the ability of law enforcement to perform their duties."

It took the police just one day to violate that court order. As I have previously written about, journalist Trey Yingst was arrested and charged with "failure to disperse" (from a street) while taking photographs on a public sidewalk. Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri Jeffrey Mittman issued the following statement: "We are deeply troubled that the First Amendment rights of the media are still being violated in spite of the recent court order we secured against such action by the County of St. Louis," said Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU of Missouri executive director. "We will continue to monitor the situation and if necessary swiftly pursue aggressive action to ensure that unlawful interference with the press comes to an end."

It is unclear at this time what steps will be taken next.

Meanwhile, the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild continue to maintain a clear presence at protests. Wearing matching bright-green hats, nearly a dozen legal observers walked alongside and throughout marching protesters in St. Louis last night. Police held traffic for the march and helped redirect cars, but otherwise did not bother protesters (in stark contrast with other protests in recent weeks). The presence of legal observers appears to have a direct impact on police behavior toward protesters, and their importance will only grow in the days to come.