Home » Perspective » David Hudson: A First Amendment right to express disagreement with police officers

By David L. Hudson Jr., published on May 25, 2018

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The decisions by a federal district judge in Mississippi stand for the principle that people have a First Amendment right to express their disagreement with police officers without being arrested.

A Tupelo, Mississippi, police officer who arrested a vehicle passenger for disorderly conduct based on verbal insubordination was not entitled to qualified immunity from the passenger’s First and Fourth Amendment claims, a federal district court has ruled.

The decisions stands for the principle that people have a First Amendment right to express their disagreement with police officers without being arrested.

The controversy began in December 2016, when police officers pulled over a vehicle that had objects hanging from the rearview mirror that could have obstructed the driver’s vision.

Two officers conducted the vehicle stop. Officer Kaitlyn Weeks approached the passenger side of the vehicle and spoke to Cameron Robinson, the passenger in the front seat.

Officer Weeks knocked on the window.  Robinson rolled down the window to complain about the car being pulled over and then pulled the window back up.  Weeks ordered Robinson to roll down the window.  When he did not comply, Weeks opened the door, commanded Robinson to get out of the car, and then handcuffed him with the other officer’s help.

The officers took Robinson to the police car and then Weeks arrested him for disorderly conduct based on his refusal to roll down the window. 

Robinson later filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city, Officer Weeks, and the police captain for several claims, including the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials.

Officer Weeks pled qualified immunity, a defense that protects government officials from liability unless they have violated clearly established constitutional or statutory law.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharion Aycock for the Northern District of Mississippi denied Officer’s Weeks qualified immunity in her May 23, 2018, decision in Robinson v. City of Tupelo.   The judge quoted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in City of Houston v. Hill (1987) for the proposition that “the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”

Furthermore, government officials need probable cause before they can arrest someone for a crime.  Here, Officer Weeks seemingly arrested Robinson merely because he criticized her and refused to roll down a window. 

Judge Aycock explained that “an arrest made pursuant to mere verbal insubordination does not provide the actual probable cause necessary under the Fourth Amendment, and may be in violation of [Robinson’s] First Amendment rights.”  She concluded that “a reasonable jury could conclude that Weeks’ continued actions, after identification of [Robinson], extended longer than necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop, without further reasonable suspicion, supported by articulable facts.”

In other words, a reasonable jury could find that Officer Weeks exceeded her authority in arresting Mr. Robinson in this situation.  Citizens retain the right under the First Amendment to voice their displeasure. There was no indication that Robinson uttered any threatening language to the officer.   

The United States of America is supposed to be a free society.  This ruling seems like a positive one that recognizes basic constitutional rights. 

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech (ABC-CLIO, 2017). 


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