Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Liability for First Amendment Violations

As this item shows, it is one thing to demonstrate that public speech and association rights have been violated but quite another to actually hold governmental entities (and officials) liable.  Police officers may have qualified immunity in civil rights cases where the right at issue was not clearly established at the time of the police action.  And governmental entities may escape liability where no custom or policy of rights violations can be proven:
Columbia Police Officer Robert Miles violated the First Amendment rights of World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship members when he threatened to arrest them if they didn't end their abortion protest outside a church in February 2005, according to a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge Robert James.

But James also concluded that Columbia wasn't liable because the street preachers failed to prove that Miles' actions resulted from a town policy or custom. The group appealed, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld James' ruling.
Plaintiffs in this case did not sue the individual officer.  And as the excerpt notes, the town escaped liability.  Thus, although the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights were violated they obtained no remedy.


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