The Supreme Court on Monday sided with prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, who is fending off a lawsuit from a police officer injured at a protest that McKesson attended.
The justices, in an unsigned order, wrote that a federal appeals court should have obtained guidance from a Louisiana state court before allowing the officer’s lawsuit to move forward, and sent the case back to be reconsidered.
The decision appeared to be 7-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas the only noted dissent. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was sworn in a week ago, did not participate in the case.
The decision came just one day before the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, in which protests of state violence against Black people have been a recurrent theme.
Trump has claimed that violence at recent demonstrations over police brutality is a sign of instability in Democratic-led cities, while Biden has been largely supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, though he has encouraged protesters to be peaceful.
McKesson’s case stemmed from a protest of the killing of Alton Sterling, a Black man, by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July 2016. The protest took place on a highway in front of the police headquarters in the city.
One officer, who is unnamed in the lawsuit, was hit by a piece of concrete or rock allegedly thrown by a protester and injured while police sought to clear the highway. While the person who threw the object wasn’t identified, the officer sued McKesson on the theory that his alleged organization of the protest made him liable for damages.
A federal district court rejected the officer’s claim but a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and allowed it to proceed on the basis that “a violent confrontation with a police officer was a foreseeable effect of negligently directing a protest” onto the road.
The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court ruling but left open the possibility that the police officer could ultimately win the case.
Because of the case’s “novel issues of state law,” the justices wrote that the federal appeals court should have first consulted with the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“The Louisiana Supreme Court, to be sure, may announce the same duty as the Fifth Circuit,” the justices wrote. But, the justices added, the 5th Circuit should not have “ventured into so uncertain an area” of law that was “laden with value judgments and fraught with implications for First Amendment rights” without first obtaining guidance on Louisiana law from the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Donna Grodner, an attorney for the officer, said the Supreme Court’s decision signified that the 5th Circuit “got it right” and suggested the ruling was a loss on only technical grounds.
Vera Eidelman, an attorney at the ACLU representing McKesson, said, “We are gratified the Supreme Court has recognized there are important First Amendment issues at stake and has asked the state courts to review whether their law even permits such a suit.”
“We look forward to a ruling reaffirming that the fundamental right to protest cannot be attacked in this way,” Eidelman said.
The case is DeRay McKesson v. John Doe, No. 19-1108.
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