Major Victory for Free Speech in Landmark Settlement

By Claire Bernish

An unprecedented settlement stemming from an incident of mass arrest in 2002 means protesters will no longer be subject to “kettling” in Washington DC, and potentially nationwide. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund represents the plaintiffs in the class-action suit and calls the settlement “a major victory for First Amendment rights” as police must now implement strict guidelines for managing protests.

In a statement, PCJF Executive Director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said,  

Although many media pundits and politicians have suggested that the social justice movement and the free speech and assembly rights of protesters have to be constricted for the sake of security and order, this settlement disproves that myth.

If you have ever attended a demonstration where police encircled the crowd, preventing movement into or out of the area for any reason — sometimes for hours at a time — often in order to perform massive and indiscriminate arrests, then you have been “kettled”.

On September 27, 2002, demonstrators gathered in Pershing Park in Washington DC during meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. US Park Police coordinated with DC Metropolitan Police to cordon off the park, refused access in or out, then arrested everyone who happened to be trapped inside, including 649 protesters, bystanders, journalists, legal observers, and even tourists — 400 of whom were represented in the class action suit. According to the PCJF statement, “Many were held bound wrist to ankle in stress-and-duress positions on a police gym floor for upwards of 24 hours.”

Though not a monetarily significant settlement, just $2.2 million, the resulting reforms to procedural policy regarding protest are vital considering the ever-widening activist and awareness movement. Police are no longer allowed to generally cordon off a demonstration, must give fair notice to disperse through a minimum of three clearly audible warnings at least two minutes apart, must indicate avenues of exit for complying with that dispersal order, and may not affect sweeping arrests. Instead, cops must provide detailed probable cause before any legal arrest can be made — and all of these policies must include inter-jurisdictional cooperation. In other words, this is huge.

The US Attorney’s Office signed a memorandum with PCJF calling the new procedural policies, “a model of ‘best practices’ for law enforcement” which will “serve future generations”, and could easily be transferred for use around the country. Carl Messineo, PCJF Legal Director, explained the significance in a statement:

All the recent protest movements — the anti-globalization, anti-war, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements — have faced unconstitutional mass arrests. The reforms in this settlement take aim at the recurrent problem of police, without proper warning and notice, suddenly rounding up, trapping and arresting demonstration groups. If these reforms can be enacted here in the Nation’s Capital, they can and should be implemented in cities across the nation.

Previous litigation declared all arrests null and void with orders for the FBI to fully expunge arrestees’ records from all criminal databases and awarded $8.25 million in compensation.

A side note on this case offers striking insight: This egregious violation of constitutional rights and mass illegal arrests was orchestrated by DC MPD Chief Charles H Ramsey who had the command at the scene — and who now works on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Claire Bernish writes for, where this article first appeared. Tune in! The Anti-Media radio show airs Monday through Friday @ 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific.

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