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Media Alerts - Occupy Nashville v. Haslam -- Sixth Circuit
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November 3, 2014
  Occupy Nashville v. Haslam -- Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit rules that state officials are entitled to qualified immunity for alleged violations of protesters' First Amendment rights

Area of Law: The U.S. Constitution

Issue presented: Are state officials entitled to qualified immunity for alleged violations of protesters' constitutional rights?

Brief Summary: Six protesters sued various state officials after being arrested for violating a curfew that those officials had imposed. The protesters alleged, in relevant part, violations of rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The district court found that the state officials were not entitled to qualified immunity and were personally liable for damages. The officials appealed. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the state officials were entitled to qualified immunity.

Significance: Government officials may restrict activity that is conducted on state grounds, especially when that activity threatens the health and safety of the people on those grounds.

Extended Summary: A group of protesters calling themselves "Occupy Nashville" established an around-the-clock presence on the Nashville War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee. After several weeks of occupying the Plaza, representatives of the protesters sought a meeting with state officials to discuss safety and health concerns that had developed in the course of the lengthy demonstration. The State agreed that the concerns had to be addressed and adopted a new policy that, in relevant part, imposed a curfew for the Plaza. Six people associated with the demonstration were later arrested for violating the curfew.

The protesters who'd been arrested sued various state officials under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, alleging, in relevant part, violations of rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The state officials countered that the protesters had no First Amendment right to "occupy" the Plaza indefinitely. Absent this right, the officials argued, there could be no constitutional violation, and qualified immunity applied. The Sixth Circuit agreed.

The Court acknowledged that the qualified immunity that ordinarily protects government officials is forfeited when an official's conduct violates "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." The Court applied a well-settled two-part test to decide whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity: (1) whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged and, if so, (2) whether the right was clearly established. The Court focused on the second part of the test.

In applying the "clearly established right" prong, the Court stressed the importance of accurately defining the claimed constitutional right. The state officials defined the right claimed by the protesters as a right to "24-hour occupation" of the public square. The protesters, on the other hand, asserted a broad "clearly established First Amendment right to be present on the Plaza to air their grievances against the government." The Court concluded that the state officials' framing of the issue was more accurate. Thus, even though the protesters claimed that they had a right under the First Amendment to air their grievances against the government, their activities, as their name suggests, were fundamentally about occupation.

Relying heavily on precedent, the Court addressed whether the indefinite occupation of the Plaza was an established right. The Court stated that for a right to be clearly established, it must be clear enough that a reasonable official would understand that what he or she is doing violates that right. It was undisputed that the State may restrict sleeping and camping on state grounds, and may restrict the times that state grounds are open to the public. Thus, the Court determined that there was no right to indefinite occupation of the Plaza.

Further, the First Amendment does not grant a right to expression that threatens the health and safety of others. Representatives of the "Occupy Nashville" group approached the state officials to discuss sanitation problems, violent assaults, damage to state property, and the generally unsafe and deteriorating conditions in the Plaza. This discussion prompted the state officials to create the curfew. The Court concluded that because the officials had a legitimate basis for creating the curfew, their conduct was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

For these reasons, the Court reversed the district court's order denying qualified immunity and granting partial judgment of liability.

Panel: SENTELLE, BENTON, and JORDAN, Circuit Judges

Date of issued opinion: October 8, 2014

Docket Number: No. 13-5882

Link to full opinion:

Counsel: ARGUED: Dawn M. Jordan, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashviller, Tennessee, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Dawn M. Jordan, Heather C. Ross, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants. C. David Briley, BONE MCALLESTER NORTON, PLLC, Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU FOUNDATION OF TENNESSEE, Nashville, Tennessee, Tricia Herzfeld, OZMENT LAW, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: KENT A. JORDAN, Circuit Judge

Case Alert author: Candis Najor

Case Alert circuit supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Edited: 04/01/2015 at 11:44 AM by Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 11/03/2014 11:54 AM     6th Circuit  

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