Article, ABA GP Solo eReport, September 2018
Before doing something incendiary, it is a good idea to think about the legal consequences. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said: “A employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed.” Put another way, protestors can potentially be fired from their jobs or denied admission to school, and police officers are often immune from punishment for their actions during chaotic situations.
What behavior may likely
constitute a violation of civil and criminal laws and how does one avoid
crossing the line from lawful to unlawful conduct?
When a protester is intentionally
breaking the law (which is what civil disobedience is all about), the cards are
stacked against them in any subsequent legal proceeding.
In civil lawsuits (as
opposed to criminal cases), police officers’ liability is decided by a legal
doctrine called qualified immunity (QI), which is a legal defense that allows
government actors to make reasonable mistakes because of the dangerous and
difficult nature of their jobs. It makes sense, for example, that police
officers need to make quick decisions with limited information for public
In practice, however, QI is
applied too often when mistakes are not reasonable. This defense extends to
everything from excessive force, to wrongful search and seizure, to false
arrest and malicious prosecution cases. See my previous article on
this topic for a more thorough discussion. Here are some examples:
Uses of force range from
Tasers to batons, handcuffs, police dogs, tear gas, and firearms (deadly
force). The propriety of each depends on every unique situation. In a civil
lawsuit, the critical question will be whether an officer used just enough
force to keep people safe or whether the officer doled out punishment, which
is never allowed.
Think about it this way: in
a crowded and chaotic situation, where a person admits he or she intended to
break the law through civil disobedience, police officers are going to argue
they needed to use force to gain control. Conversely, a protestor will
successfully argue that the police acted for some reason other than to keep
people safe. I often tell juries that even rapists and murders have a
constitutional right not to be subjected excessive force. It is not the
police’s role to act as a judge, jury, and executioner.
Just as with excessive
force, a false arrest needs to be objectively unreasonable in order to win a
civil rights lawsuit. A lot of headlines focus on whether “stop and frisk”
practices go too far, but police commonly win these arguments in court by
explaining that they were under “exigent circumstances.” An emergency situation
such as chaotic protests gives police the leeway to do more than would be
allowed on a calm city street.
Police officers do not need
to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to lawfully detain someone. Despite my
vigorous and aggressive representation of people who had been in prison for
years before their criminal charges were dismissed, courts have found that if
police had any reasonable suspicion whatsoever that my clients committed a
crime (even if later found to be totally untrue), the police officers had no
In a protest situation, just
standing near other people who are committing crimes might be enough to create
probable cause to justify an arrest. With a valid search warrant, police can
lawfully detain and search anyone at the premises without any justification.
It’s the same as going to the airport and going through the TSA security line.
This comes in many forms,
and the law continues to evolve with technology. A recent case in the Third
Circuit (where I practice) established the right to record police activity on
cell phones. The court held that the First Amendment right of access to
information encompasses the right to record police officers’ conducting
official police activity in public. Fields v. City of
Philadelphia, 862 F.3d 353 (3d Cir. 2017).
Unfortunately, the Third
Circuit also found that the right to record police was so unknown by most
police officers that the officers in Fields were
entitled to immunity and not liable for preventing people from recording police
What are the potential
impacts on current employment?
Federal laws such as Title
VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment
Act, and analogous state laws protect people from workplace discrimination
based on things such as race, national origin, gender, age, and disability.
Political viewpoints, however, are usually not protected.
If a person enters into an
employment contract with a private employer, the company has the right to take
adverse action for conduct they feel is detrimental to the business. A good
example was the recent suspension by
ESPN of its employee, Jemele Hill. Another example is former NFL quarterback,
Colin Kaepernick. In both instances it was not unlawful for the employers to
make business decisions about what they felt was best for the organization.
Some states do have laws
that protect “off-duty” conduct. These states include California, Colorado,
Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, North
Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The laws in each state are different and do
not provide blanket protections, so it’s safest to assume that if you do
something controversial, there could be job implications.
Are union activities
Union activities are an
exception to a private employer’s broad power to make employment decisions. If
an employer takes action because an employee files a union grievance, that is
considered unlawful retaliation under the First Amendment. Justice v. Danberg, 571 F. Supp. 2d 602, 611 (D.
Del. 2008). See Thomas
v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 532 (1945) (“Free discussion
concerning the conditions in industry and the causes of labor disputes appears
to us indispensable to the effective and intelligent use of the processes of
popular government to shape the destiny of modern industrial society”); United Federation of Postal Clerks v. Blount, 325
F.Supp. 879, 883 (D.D.C. 1971), aff’d per curiam, 404
U.S. 802 (1971) (“The right [of public employees] to organize collectively and
to select representatives for the purposes of engaging in collective bargaining
is . . . a fundamental right”); Labov v. Lalley, 809
F.2d 220, 222–23 (3d Cir. 1987).
Can activism affect
applications for employment?
Many states prevent
employers from considering arrests when making hiring decisions. The idea is
that someone should not be penalized if their arrest results in a dismissal or
not-guilty verdict. Not all states prevent employers from considering convictions
and a criminal record.
Further, about a quarter of
the workforce in the United States have a license or certificate. Licensing
boards commonly require disclosure of a criminal record. A criminal record in
and of itself does not necessarily prevent certification. Boards typically have
discretion depending on the severity of an infraction. Failing to disclose a
criminal record can be more serious than the record itself.
What are the potential
impacts for school and college?
As discussed above, failing
to disclose is often a bigger issue than the conviction itself. While schools
and colleges do have the right to ask about criminal records, that usually does
not automatically disqualify applicants. Importantly, criminal records can also
prevent financial aid, including federal loans.
Can civil servants in
government refuse to obey the law they are charged with enforcing?
Recently, Kim Davis made
news as a local government clerk in Kentucky who would not issue marriage
licenses to same-sex couples. Davis was found in contempt of court and jailed.
Interestingly, Davis eventually returned to work and issued licenses without
adding her name to the license. Perhaps the lesson is that instead of outright
refusal to comply (which could land you in jail), civil servants can find a way
to obey the law without violating their core values.
When counseling clients who
may engage in civil disobedience, the thorough attorney will focus on: (1)
employment issues, (2) police interactions, and (3) the broad ramifications of
a criminal record. While not foolproof, chances of adverse consequences will be
Have you had a similar
experience? Please share your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org.
rights attorney David Berlin helps people who have had their
constitutional rights violated. He can be reached email@example.com or 484/432-1073.