Police actions that violated the free speech rights of protesters and reporters have prompted a trio of new lawsuits against the City of Atlanta, its police department and several individual officers.
One case involves a photographer for Creative Loafing who was attempting to take a photograph of a protester being arrested at a downtown rally in Atlanta last November to protest the Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decision in a police shooting case. In another incident, earlier in 2014, a citizen who was called a “leech” by a police officer because she filmed him while the officer was detaining some men in a downtown park, was arrested a week later by the same officer while she was peaceably engaged in feeding the homeless. The third incident involved another man at a downtown rally protesting the police shooting in Ferguson; he was arrested for simply wearing a symbolic mask.
Five law firms are involved in representing the three plaintiffs in the free speech cases filed in U.S. District court.
Cynthia Counts represents Austin Gates, who participated in an Atlanta protest march about events in Ferguson on Nov. 26, 2014. At the beginning of the march, according to the complaint in Gates v. Atlanta, some protesters were handing out “V for Vendetta” masks, and Gates took one. The use of stylized “Guy Fawkes” masks, popularized by the movie “V” has become widespread internationally to protest the disparities between those who hold a disproportionate share of all the wealth and the rest, who struggle to survive.
Gates wore the mask but at no time did he threaten, intimidate or provoke the apprehension of violence. According to Gates, his intent was peaceful and anonymous protest. During the march, a swarm of officers pushed into the crowd without warning. An officer grabbed Gates by the shoulder and pulled him from the crowd. After asking several times why he was being detained, the officer said it was because he was “wearing a mask,” said Gates, who also noted the officer never asked him to remove it.
“When Klan violence was at its peak, Georgia passed a statute that prohibits wearing masks, but the law requires an intent to threaten, intimidate or show a reckless disregard for the safety of others,” said Counts, who has litigated free speech cases involving police in several jurisdictions. “The police reports and Mr. Gates’ sworn testimony make clear that his only intent was to engage in non-violent, anonymous political speech, clearly protected by the Constitution.
"In Atlanta, which prides itself on inclusion and diversity, it is astonishing that the police would use a law that was intended to prevent the Klan from intimidating black Americans as its justification for arresting a citizen who was peacefully exercising his constitutional rights to protest the killing of a black man by police."
Gates was never given his Miranda rights. He was detained for more than seven hours at a police precinct and then the Fulton County jail before being allowed to make a phone call. In all, the total period of his detainment was nearly 12 hours.
The charges against Gates were subsequently dismissed. This was also true of the other two free speech cases that were also filed September 21.
As the complaint notes, at least three recent matters have been settled by the City of Atlanta involving officers who interfered with and arrested citizens solely for exercising their constitutional right to free speech.
Two consent orders growing out of those settlements required police to revise their standard operating procedures, upgrade penalties and train officers to the revised standard, but the Plaintiffs are alleging the city has never complied with those requirements, and in fact has been cited for contempt for failing to do so.