A federal appeals court has ruled that warning others about police activity is a form of speech and protected by the First Amendment. The civil rights case involved a Connecticut man who was arrested in 2018 for holding up a sign that warned motorists about a nearby police checkpoint. The misdemeanor interference charge against the man was later dropped. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the man’s arrest and the confiscation of his sign and cellphone violated rights protected by the First and Fourth Amendments.
The man filed a civil lawsuit against the police officer who arrested him and the city of Stamford shortly after the charge against him was dropped. In 2020, a district court judge dismissed the case after determining that the man’s sign did not amount to speech because it did not express an opinion. The judge also said the police had good reason to stop the man from holding his sign, and the officer acted properly by taking him into custody.
The appeals court disagreed with all three of the district court judge’s conclusions. In a 29-page opinion, it stated that the right to oppose the police without risking arrest is a fundamental civil right in a free society. This is the same conclusion that the U.S. Supreme Court reached in 1983 when it ruled in Houston v. Hill. In that case, the justices voted 8-1 that a local law prohibiting the verbal harassment of police officers was unconstitutional.
This case reveals that judges still sometimes side with the authorities in civil rights cases even when the law appears to be clear and settled. Cases against motorists who flash their headlights to warn oncoming drivers about police activity have routinely been dismissed on First Amendment grounds, but the trial court judge in this case ruled in favor of the police. This case also shows that higher courts take these matters more seriously.
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