SCOTUS: Qualified Immunity vs. Free Speech

Issue before or regarding the Supreme Court of The United States

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At a conference on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the appeal of an Ohio man who was arrested and prosecuted for making fun of his local police department on Facebook. Well-known parody websites The Onion and The Babylon Bee offered their support for Anthony Novak’s First Amendment case, which was brought to the Court by the Institute for Justice (IJ). IJ’s appeal asks whether freedom of speech actually protects Americans or whether police can arrest you for what you post online.

“We are asking the Supreme Court to make it clear that qualified immunity does not trump free speech,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “The First Amendment protects the right of every American to poke fun at government officials. But if police can arrest you for your jokes, that right is meaningless.”

In March 2016, Anthony Novak created a parody Facebook page making fun of the Parma Police Department. Anthony’s page was modeled after the real department page. It had the same name and profile picture, but displayed the satirical slogan, “We no crime.” The posts were obvious parody and included things like the announcement of an “official stay inside and catch up with family day” to “reduce future crimes” during which anyone caught outside would be arrested.

The Parma Police Department did not appreciate Anthony’s criticism. Citing 11 calls made to a nonemergency line to either ask about or tattle on Anthony’s parody page, police spent weeks planning to arrest Anthony. Through a slow and deliberate process, police obtained a warrant for Anthony’s arrest, searched his apartment, seized his electronics, and charged him with a felony under an Ohio law that criminalizes using a computer to “disrupt” “police operations.” Anthony had to spend four days in jail before making bail. He was prosecuted, but after a full criminal trial, a jury found him not guilty.

But when Anthony tried to vindicate his rights by filing a civil rights lawsuit, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hold the police officers accountable for their actions. Despite the clear violation of Anthony’s First and Fourth Amendment rights, the Sixth Circuit granted the officers qualified immunity.

Anthony’s case is not the only example of police using their power to punish a joke. IJ is also representing Waylon Bailey of Alexandria, Louisiana, in a suit against the Rapides Parish Sheriff and one of its detectives. In March 2020, Waylon posted a joke equating the developing COVID-19 pandemic to a zombie outbreak. His post included emoji and referenced Brad Pitt’s starring role in the movie World War Z. Sheriff’s deputies showed up at Waylon’s home, arrested him and charged him under an anti-terrorism law.

Like Anthony, Waylon sued over the violation of his constitutional rights. But, like the officers in Anthony’s case, the detective who arrested Waylon was granted qualified immunity by a federal trial court. IJ is now appealing Waylon’s case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Reference links included in source:

Anthony Novak was arrested and prosecuted for making fun of his local police department with a parody Facebook page. He was acquitted by a jury and sued the city and its officers over the violation of his First Amendment rights. That suit was denied after courts granted the officers qualified immunity. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Anthony’s appeal, which was filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ).

“Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court decision today leaves in place a ruling that allows qualified immunity to override the free speech rights of every person in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “Anthony’s Facebook page was the type of government parody that the founders intended to protect through the First Amendment, which is why The Onion and The Babylon Bee supported our appeal. That everyday people can see the inside of a jail cell for their jokes on Facebook is yet another reason why qualified immunity must come to an end.”

“I’m disappointed the Supreme Court won’t consider my case both because I won’t be able to hold the officers accountable for their violation of my rights, but also because I worry about what will happen to others who poke fun at the powerful,” said Anthony. “The government shouldn’t be able to arrest you for making a joke at its expense.”

Anthony’s case is not the only example of police using their power to punish someone for telling a joke. IJ is also representing Waylon Bailey of Rapides Parish, Louisiana, in a suit against the local sheriff’s office and one of its detectives. In March 2020, Waylon posted a joke equating the developing COVID-19 pandemic to a zombie outbreak. His post included emoji and referenced Brad Pitt’s starring role in the movie World War Z. Even though the post was obviously a joke, sheriff’s deputies showed up at Waylon’s home, arrested him and charged him under an anti-terrorism law.

IJ also advocates for a legislative solution to the problems caused by qualified immunity, the Protecting Everyone’s Constitutional Rights Act. In recent years, Colorado, New Mexico and New York City have enacted laws that ban qualified immunity as a legal defense for law enforcement officers.

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In addition to the Waylon Bailey case mentioned in the OP, there is a case before the 5th circuit out of Texas that is still pending:


Report on 5th circuit hearing:
Details are different, but the base issue is the same:

In a partial victory for police accountability, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the First Amendment protects a passenger who livestreams the traffic stop of the car he is traveling in. EFF filed an amicus brief in Sharpe v. Winterville in 2021 in support of the plaintiff. Unfortunately, the Fourth Circuit’s opinion is not a total win for First Amendment rights because the court curtailed the plaintiff’s ability to hold the individual officers accountable.

Not SCOTUS, but related to the topic:

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in a lawsuit before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case seeks to overturn a lower court’s ruling that shielded school administrators in Gloucester, Massachusetts, from accountability after they threatened a parent with legal action for recording and posting his public interaction with the school superintendent’s office.

In March 2022, Inge Berge wanted to buy tickets to attend his daughter’s middle school play, but he missed out on the tickets because the school was limiting capacity due to COVID-19. Upset that he might miss his daughter’s play, he went to the superintendent’s office—which was open to the public—to ask if there was any way to create an exception so he could buy a ticket. Berge openly and obviously recorded his visit to the superintendent’s office and his discussion with the officials. He remained calm as he spoke with the officials, two of whom refused to talk while being recorded, and a third who said he would look into the situation. But later that day, after Berge posted the interaction on Facebook, the superintendent’s office sent him a letter demanding he remove the video or face legal repercussions. This blatant effort to suppress Berge’s speech was based on a statute that only prohibits “secret” recordings—but the letter itself made clear that there was nothing secret about what Berge did.

Knowing his rights had been violated, Berge filed a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit. The school then rescinded its letter demanding he take the video down, but the district court dismissed Berge’s retaliation claims against the school administration. The court ruled that the officials were shielded by qualified immunity—a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from civil liability unless the unconstitutionality of their conduct was “clearly established”—because the facts of this case did not exactly match those of any prior case. As explained in IJ’s brief, that is not how the qualified immunity doctrine works, even in the face of its unjustified expansions.

“Some rights violations are so obvious that plaintiffs don’t have to go on scavenger hunts for previous cases with similar facts in order to move forward with a lawsuit,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “School officials knew their threat of legal action against Mr. Berge was baseless, which is why they immediately rescinded their threat once he fought back.”

IJ’s brief urges the First Circuit to overturn the lower court’s decision granting school officials qualified immunity and to allow Berge’s First Amendment retaliation claims to move forward.

“Premeditated retaliation against someone for their First Amendment-protected speech is not the type of ‘split-second’ decision that even proponents of qualified immunity ever contemplated the doctrine protecting,” added IJ Litigation Fellow Anna Goodman.

The following provides some context on the issue of qualified immunity and is not directly related to the pending SCOTUS case/decision:

Police officers have many reasonable protections from litigation. But qualified immunity extends protection to officers who violate the Constitution in ways that are objectively unreasonable even when viewed from an officer’s heat‐of‐the‐moment perspective.

The Fourth Amendment and its related jurisprudence already protect police officers (and other public officials) who make hair‐trigger mistakes or misjudgments that were reasonable at the time. That’s doubly true if an officer’s life is at risk. Most people would agree that these protections are both reasonable and warranted. And indeed, even without qualified immunity, police would still be shielded from liability for good‐faith mistakes—especially those made in violent encounters.

But the arbitrary, court‐invented doctrine of qualified immunity creates a means for departments and police officers to escape accountability for abhorrent acts via a standard that is completely divorced from any analysis of whether an officer’s actions are reasonable—or malicious.

More (long):

From your link:

But the , court‐invented doctrine of qualified immunity creates a means for departments and police officers to escape accountability for abhorrent acts via a standard that is completely divorced from any analysis of whether an officer’s actions are reasonable—or malicious.

That is exactly why qualified immunity needs to be done away with. Because they abused it. Same as gov does with all rulings that favor government actions. They all end up being abused.

Asset forfeiture is another gross abuse by government. Started out as a legitimate tool to be used against actual criminals, but is now used as an excuse to "legally" rob the average citizen.
Also not directly related to the pending SCOTUS decision, but I think CATO is publishing this stuff to raise awareness and possibly influence SCOTUS...

Judge Don Willett of the Fifth Circuit has long been one of the foremost judicial critics of qualified immunity and a leading voice urging the Supreme Court to reconsider this unjust and unlawful doctrine. In 2018, he wrote a separate opinion “concurring dubitante” in a decision granting immunity to register his concern with “the kudzu‐like creep of the modern immunity regime” and explaining how the doctrine “smacks of unqualified impunity, letting public officials duck consequences for bad behavior—no matter how palpably unreasonable—as long as they were the first to behave badly.”

Over the last few years, Judge Willett has written several additional opinions elaborating on various concerns with the doctrine, both in terms of its underlying justifications and practical application. And last week, in a case called Rogers v. Jarrett, he added to this judicial anthology, with a concurring opinion highlighting Professor Alex Reinert’s recent scholarship, which explains how the legal justifications for qualified immunity are even weaker than previously believed.



Appeals Court Reverses Qualified Immunity for Deputy Who Held New Mexico Man at Gunpoint​

DENVER—Mario Rosales did nothing wrong but became the victim of an off-duty police officer’s road rage. Although the sheriff’s deputy was convicted of assaulting Mario, a federal district court gave the deputy “qualified immunity” and dismissed Mario’s civil rights lawsuit. The Institute for Justice (IJ), a national non-profit law firm that seeks to hold government officials accountable, appealed Mario’s case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Today the 10th Circuit reversed the lower court’s opinion and denied the officer qualified immunity, allowing Mario’s fight for justice to move forward.

“Officers who egregiously violate the constitution should not be shielded by qualified immunity,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller. “Today’s decision upholds the rule of law and lets a good man seek justice in the courts. When officers abuse their authority by criminally assaulting people, they must be held accountable.”

In a decision from the three-judge panel, Judge Nancy Louise Mortiz wrote that: “Courts can protect officers’ ability to make reasonable split-second law-enforcement decisions when dealing with suspected violent criminals without protecting an officer who was himself the only violent criminal on the scene.”


August 2, 2023

NEW ORLEANS—For over a decade, Louisiana’s prison system has regularly held inmates past their release dates. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has been violating the constitutional rights of people in its custody. But holding the long-time head of the system, James LeBlanc, responsible for violations of the U.S. Constitution may be nearly impossible depending on the outcome of a case being considered by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Percy Taylor served 525 extra days in a Louisiana prison. Although he realized his release date had been incorrectly calculated and alerted prison officials, they stuck fast to the wrong date. Long after the time he should have been free, Percy won a court order agreeing with him on the release date. Even with this order in hand, it took another month before Percy was freed.

After he was finally released, Percy sued two prison officials and LeBlanc. The district court denied all three men qualified immunity on some of the claims but LeBlanc appealed to the 5th Circuit. The Institute for Justice (IJ) has taken on Percy’s case at the appeals court and filed its first brief late yesterday.

August 2, 2023

After unearthing previously-withheld documents, today, Hamdi Mohamud renewed her fight to hold St. Paul Police Officer Heather Weyker accountable for having Mohamud unjustly arrested and imprisoned for two years. The documents, which were not turned over during Mohamud’s previous multi-year lawsuit against Weyker, confirm that Officer Weyker was working as a local police officer when she framed Mohamud for a crime Mohamud did not commit. This is a pivotal turn in the case, as Weyker has repeatedly argued that, as a cross-deputized member of a state-federal task force, she was acting exclusively as a federal officer, which makes her effectively immune from accountability.

“Officers who egregiously violate the constitution should not be shielded by qualified immunity,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller.
I wonder what she thinks of the ones who only violate the Constitution in the regular ways?

When ya look up the word "egregiously", you'll find definitions like the following.
in an outstandingly bad way; shockingly.

Seems like she is saying that if it had not been done in an outstanding and shockingly bad manner, that it might have been ok?

Her statement would read a lot better like this.

Officers who violate the constitution should not be shielded by qualified immunity,
Related to topic.

He Was Strip-Searched and Jailed for Criticizing Cops. Now He's Fighting Back in Court.​

In an apparent case of retaliation by humiliation, Jerry Rogers Jr. was arrested for speaking out about a stalled murder investigation.


In July 2017, Louisiana woman Nanette Krentel was shot in the head and left in a burning house. More than two years passed before anyone was arrested. That person, however, wasn't alleged to be the murderer. Rather, the sole arrest related to Krentel's death was that of Jerry Rogers Jr. His crime: criticizing the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office (STPSO) for its slow investigation of the case, which remains unsolved.

Naturally, Rogers sued the department for violating his rights. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that his lawsuit against Sheriff Randy Smith, Chief Danny Culpeper, and Sgt. Keith Canizaro may proceed, confirming they violated clearly established law when they punished Rogers for his speech.


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