Supreme Court Rules Protest Organizer Not Personally Responsible for Injury to Cop

November 2, 2020 Updated: November 3, 2020

The Supreme Court sided with a protest organizer whom a policeman tried to hold personally responsible for an injury suffered at a 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson, an advocate of political violence, had led the protest illegally onto a highway, and the police officer was injured by a thrown rock or piece of concrete that hit his head. The assailant is unknown.

The decision comes at a time when many Americans have grown weary of violent demonstrations led by Black Lives Matter and Antifa, and are anxious about an outbreak of political violence on Election Day and in its aftermath as ballots are counted.

The 7–1 decision in the case cited as Mckesson v. Doe was issued without the benefit of oral arguments in the case. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the ruling. The newly sworn-in Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate in the case.

The ruling overturns a decision by the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed an injured police officer’s lawsuit against Mckesson personally to move forward, sending the case back to the circuit court for another look.

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson, who was appointed by then-President Barack Obama, found that neither Mckesson nor the Black Lives Matter movement could be sued over the incident. The police officer, identified pseudonymously as John Doe, appealed, and in 2019, the 5th Circuit resurrected the lawsuit as to Mckesson but dismissed the claim against Black Lives Matter, finding it wasn’t a legal entity capable of being sued.

Doe suffered brain trauma, a head injury, and lost teeth after an unknown assailant threw a rock or piece of concrete at him.

Mckesson, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, argued in a petition filed with the Supreme Court on March 5 that his First Amendment-protected rights of freedom of speech and assembly trumped any claim against him for leading the demonstration.

The Supreme Court didn’t rule on Doe’s claim itself.

“The question presented for our review is whether the theory of personal liability adopted by the Fifth Circuit violates the First Amendment,” the court stated in the unsigned ruling.

“Mckesson contends that his role in leading the protest onto the highway, even if negligent and punishable as a misdemeanor, cannot make him personally liable for the violent act of an individual whose only association with him was attendance at the protest.”

The circuit court’s “interpretation of state law is too uncertain a premise on which to address the question presented. The constitutional issue, though undeniably important, is implicated only if Louisiana law permits recovery under these circumstances in the first place.”

The Supreme Court noted that Louisiana Civil Code article 2315(A) provides: “Every act whatever of man that causes damage to another obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.”

Louisiana Rev. Statutes Section 14:97 provides: “Simple obstruction of a highway of commerce is the intentional or criminally negligent placing of anything or performance of any act on any railway, railroad, navigable waterway, road, highway, thoroughfare, or runway of an airport, which will render movement thereon more difficult.”

Mckesson interpreted the new ruling as a victory.

“I’ve been in this legal battle since Nov 2016 and the Supreme Court vacated the 5th Circuit decision against me that said that individual organizers can be civilly liable for injuries/damages. This is [a] win for every organizer and activist. Let’s keep fighting,” he wrote on Twitter after the decision was made public.

Mckesson justified violent “unrest” or “uprising” during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on April 28, 2015, dismissing looting and destruction of private businesses in his home town of Baltimore.

“I think that the unrest, the uprising, whatever you call it, is again a cry for justice here and a cry for justice across the country because the police continue to terrorize people. The terrorizing is actually deadly. Broken windows are not broken spines. People are in pain.

“There’s been a lot of positive demonstrations over the past couple months here in Baltimore and across the country because the police have continued to kill people.”

Blitzer said: “But at least 15 police officers have been hurt, 200 arrests, 144 vehicle fires, these are statistics, local police have put out 15 structure fires. There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?”

Mckesson replied, “Again, there’s no excuse for the seven people that the Baltimore city Police Department has killed in the past year either, right?”

Obama honored Mckesson and other Black Lives Matter leaders, meeting with them at the White House on Feb. 18, 2016, the Baltimore Sun reported, as Mckesson unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Baltimore.

Following the meeting, Obama praised Mckesson, saying he had carried out “outstanding work mobilizing in Baltimore.”