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Organizer of Black Lives Matter Highway-Blocking Protest Can Be Sued for Injury to Police Officer

An interesting decision from the Fifth Circuit, allowing a negligence claim to go forward against organizer Deray Mckesson; the court's reasoning relies heavily on the illegal nature of the protest.


From Wednesday's Doe v. Mckesson:

On July 9, 2016, a protest took place by blocking a public highway in front of the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters. [Footnote: This case comes to us on a motion to dismiss, so we treat all well-pleaded facts as true.] This demonstration was one in a string of protests across the country, often associated with Black Lives Matter, concerning police practices. The Baton Rouge Police Department prepared by organizing a front line of officers in riot gear. These officers were ordered to stand in front of other officers prepared to make arrests. Officer Doe was one of the officers ordered to make arrests. DeRay Mckesson, associated with Black Lives Matter, was the prime leader and an organizer of the protest.

In the presence of Mckesson, some protesters began throwing objects at the police officers. Specifically, protestors began to throw full water bottles, which had been stolen from a nearby convenience store. The dismissed complaint further alleges that Mckesson did nothing to prevent the violence or to calm the crowd, and, indeed, alleges that Mckesson "incited the violence on behalf of [Black Lives Matter]." The complaint specifically alleges that Mckesson led the protestors to block the public highway. The police officers began making arrests of those blocking the highway and participating in the violence.

At some point, an unidentified individual picked up a piece of concrete or a similar rock-like object and threw it at the officers making arrests. The object struck Officer Doe's face. Officer Doe was knocked to the ground and incapacitated. Officer Doe's injuries included loss of teeth, a jaw injury, a brain injury, a head injury, lost wages, "and other compensable losses."

Doe sued Mckesson and Black Lives Matter; the Fifth Circuit held that Black Lives Matter wasn't an organization that can be sued, and also rejected the claims that Mckesson was vicariously liable for the action of the rock-thrower or conspired with the rock-thrower. But the court allowed the negligence claim against McKesson to go forward:

We first note that this case comes before us from a dismissal on the pleadings alone. In this context, we find that Officer Doe has plausibly alleged that Mckesson breached his duty of reasonable care in the course of organizing and leading the Baton Rouge demonstration.

The complaint specifically alleges that it was Mckesson himself who intentionally led the demonstrators to block the highway. Blocking a public highway is a criminal act under Louisiana law. See La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:97. As such, it was patently foreseeable that the Baton Rouge police would be required to respond to the demonstration by clearing the highway and, when necessary, making arrests.

Given the intentional lawlessness of this aspect of the demonstration, Mckesson should have known that leading the demonstrators onto a busy highway was most nearly certain to provoke a confrontation between police and the mass of demonstrators, yet he ignored the foreseeable danger to officers, bystanders, and demonstrators, and notwithstanding, did so anyway. By ignoring the foreseeable risk of violence that his actions created, Mckesson failed to exercise reasonable care in conducting his demonstration….

Furthermore, as the purpose of imposing a duty on Mckesson in this situation is to prevent foreseeable violence to the police and bystanders, Officer Doe's injury, as alleged in the pleadings, was within the scope of the duty of care allegedly breached by Mckesson.

We iterate what we have previously noted: Our ruling at this point is not to say that a finding of liability will ultimately be appropriate. At the motion to dismiss stage, however, we are simply required to decide whether Officer Doe's claim for relief is sufficiently plausible to allow him to proceed to discovery. We find that it is….

The Supreme Court has made clear that "[t]he First Amendment does not protect violence." N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 916 (1982)…. Assuming that the First Amendment is applicable to Mckesson's conduct, in order to counter its applicability at the pleading stage Officer Doe simply needed to plausibly allege that his injuries were one of the "consequences" of "tortious activity," which itself was "authorized, directed, or ratified" by Mckesson in violation of his duty of care. See id. ("[A] finding that [the defendant] authorized, directed, or ratified specific tortious activity would justify holding him responsible for the consequences of that activity."). Our discussion above makes clear that Officer Doe's complaint does allege that Mckesson directed the demonstrators to engage in the criminal act of occupying the public highway, which quite consequentially provoked a confrontation between the Baton Rouge police and the protesters, and that Officer Doe's injuries were the foreseeable result of the tortious and illegal conduct of blocking a busy highway. Thus, on the pleadings, which must be read in a light most favorable to Officer Doe, the First Amendment is not a bar to Officer Doe's negligence theory. The district court erred by dismissing Officer Doe's complaint—at the pleading stage—as barred by the First Amendment.

The court noted, though, that Doe could no longer proceed anonymously:

[Doe] argues that the public nature of his job puts him and his family in danger of additional violence. At the district court, he listed a number of examples of acts of violence against police officers by individuals who may have some connection with Black Lives Matter. In its order, the district court walked through three factors common to anonymous-party suits that we have said "deserve considerable weight." Doe v. Stegall, 653 F.2d 180, 186 (5th Cir. 1981). These are: (1) whether the plaintiff is "challeng[ing] governmental activity"; (2) whether the plaintiff will be required to disclose information "of the utmost intimacy"; and (3) whether the plaintiff will be "compelled to admit [his] intention to engage in illegal conduct, thereby risking criminal prosecution." The district court concluded that none of these factors applied to the facts of this case.

In response to Officer Doe's argument regarding potential future violence, the district court noted that the incidents Officer Doe listed did not involve Officer Doe and were not related to this lawsuit. In fact, at oral argument before the district court regarding his motion, Officer Doe conceded that he had received no particularized threats of violence since filing his lawsuit. The district court instead saw the incidents Officer Doe listed as evidence of "the generalized threat of violence that all police officers face." As a result, the district found that Doe had not demonstrated a privacy interest that outweighs the "customary and constitutionally embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings."

We agree with the district court and affirm the denial of Doe's motion to proceed anonymously. In so holding, we emphasize what the Supreme Court said decades ago: "What transpires in the court room is public property." Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367, 374 (1947).

Thanks to Howard Bashman (How Appealing) for the pointer.