The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson in a lawsuit brought by a police officer who was injured at a protest where Mckesson was present.
Specifically, the high court ruled Monday that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit should have checked with Louisiana’s state Supreme Court before allowing the suit to proceed, and it sent the case back for reconsideration, The Washington Post reports. Mckesson, a gay man, has long been prominent in the BLM movement.
The officer, identified only as John Doe, was seriously injured when he was hit in the head by a rock or other projectile at a 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, La. He did not allege that Mckesson threw the object or even knew who did, but he claimed that Mckesson was responsible as an organizer of the demonstration because he should have known violence would occur. The protest near the Baton Rouge police headquarters was in response to the police killing of Black man Alton Sterling.
A federal district court dismissed the suit, saying such claims were barred by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. But the Fifth Circuit reinstated it by ruling that Mckesson could be held liable if “a violent confrontation with a police officer was a foreseeable effect of negligently directing a protest” onto a road outside the police station.
But the Fifth Circuit should have checked with the Louisiana Supreme Court to see if the officer could recover damages under state law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its unsigned opinion. “We think that the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of state law is too uncertain a premise on which to address the question presented,” the justices wrote. “The constitutional issue, though undeniably important, is implicated only if Louisiana law permits recovery under these circumstances in the first place.” So it sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit for reconsideration in light of this issue.
The opinion was apparently 7-1, as Justice Clarence Thomas dissented and the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, did not participate in the ruling; she was not on the court when it considered the case.
Donna Grodner, an attorney for Doe, maintained that the ruling merely hinged on a technicality and suggested it was an affirmation of the Fifth Circuit’s position, CNBC reports. But Mckesson and his lawyers were celebratory.
“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,” Vera Eidelman, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing McKesson, said in a press release. “We look forward to a ruling reaffirming that the fundamental right to protest cannot be attacked in this way.”
Mckesson added that the decision “recognizes that holding me liable for organizing a protest because an unidentifiable person threw a rock raises First Amendment concerns. I’m gratified that the Supreme Court vacated the ruling … but amazingly, the fight is not over.”