Press Release: October 24, 2017
Cleveland Municipal Court Dismisses 12 Cases Against RNC Protesters
Judge rules all 12 arrests unconstitutional violations of protestors’ First Amendment rights.
CLEVELAND, OHIO ― On October 20, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Charles L. Patton dismissed all charges against 12 activists who were arrested and charged with violations of aggravated disorderly conduct and obstruction ordinances after they participated in a flag burning action during the Republican National Convention in July 2016. Last fall, the protesters filed motions to dismiss the charges, arguing the arrests violated their First Amendment rights because the ordinances were unconstitutionally applied to them and their arrests imposed unconstitutional prior restraints on their freedom of speech and assembly.
Burning the flag has long been indisputably recognized as a free speech activity, protected by the First Amendment. At a January 2017 hearing on these motions, Chief of Police Calvin Williams acknowledged that flag burning was legal. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Patton’s order reads, in part, “The government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable, even where our flag is involved… If there is a bedrock principle underlying the first amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea without more that removes the idea from the First Amendment’s protection.”
“Judge Patton made the right decision in declaring these arrests unconstitutional and dismissing all charges, as the City of Cleveland targeted and arrested activists legitimately engaged in free speech,” said attorney Jacqueline Greene, partner at the law firm of Friedman and Gilbert and one of the lawyers representing the charged activists. “This should be read as a clear message to the City—and particularly to the police—that they must respect the First Amendment rights of protesters, whatever their message.”
“Our freedoms of speech and assembly are bedrock principles of this county. The City of Cleveland was obligated under the law to protect the rights of protesters; instead it charged them with crimes in retaliation for their speech, in an attempt to cover up the unconstitutional actions of the police. Such egregious attacks on our democratic principles cannot be tolerated,” said Sarah Gelsomino, also a partner at the law firm of Friedman and Gilbert and one of the lawyers representing the charged activists.
“We are thrilled that the Court saw these arrests for what they were: quashing dissent. We are proud of what we did at the RNC and that we stood up to the suppression of speech. Dismissal was the only just outcome after we suffered from the City of Cleveland’s aggressive arrests, days in detention, and almost a year and a half of ongoing prosecution—when we had committed no crime,” said Noche Diaz, one of the 12 protesters whose charges were dismissed.
The events leading to these arrests and subsequent criminal charges occurred during the Republican National Convention, held in Cleveland, Ohio from July 18 through 21, 2016. On the afternoon of July 20, 2016, dozens of protesters gathered near East 4th Street and Prospect Avenue with the purpose of burning an American flag as an expression of their political views in protest of the Republican Party and then-presidential nominee Trump.
The City of Cleveland intervened immediately as the flag was lit. Chief of Police Calvin Williams and several other officers pushed into the circle of protesters. The Cleveland Division of Police subsequently arrested sixteen people, held them in jail for approximately 30 hours, and filed criminal charges. This intervention, as Judge Patton ruled today, violated their constitutional rights, including the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association and assembly.
Every single criminal charge against RNC protesters has now been dismissed. In January 2017, the City of Cleveland dismissed criminal charges against two other RNC Protesters, including Gregory “Joey” Johnson, defendant in the 1989 Supreme Court case that declared flag burning to be protected speech activity under the First Amendment. In September, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O’Malley dropped all felony charges filed against two protesters who also participated in the flag burning. The two protesters were charged with assaulting a police officer, obstruction, and resisting arrest.
“We stood at the gates of the RNC the same day Donald Trump was selected as the Republican candidate for president. We burned the American Flag and declared ‘America was Never Great!’ The State targeted us for our message and stopped us from exercising our rights in sounding the alarm on the unfolding nightmare of the Trump/Pence fascist regime,” Johnson said.
More than 40 local attorneys with the Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the Cleveland Branch of the NAACP, and other affiliated lawyers volunteered to defend protesters’ rights during the RNC on a pro bono basis.