After more than a week of protests in Ferguson, Missouri in August, local authorities began ordering people to keep moving or face arrest. On Monday, a federal judge told St. Louis County authorities and state troopers to stop using that strategy, which limits the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters.
The unwritten policy that individuals must keep moving was first enforced by police on Aug. 18, after several nights where protests had turned violent. As the National Guard was called in to help keep peace, law enforcement rolled out their new strategy to keep protesters moving — whether they were violent or not. One woman was told to keep moving even when she stopped to pray.
"Some law enforcement officers told people that they could stand still for no more than five seconds," Judge Catherine D. Perry said. "Others gave instructions that people were walking too slowly, or that they could not walk back and forth in a small area. Some law enforcement officers did not make people keep moving, others did. Some officers applied the strategy to reporters, others did not. Many officers told people who were standing in small groups on the sidewalks during the daytime hours that they would be arrested if they did not keep moving."
The strategy was so inconsistently used that it targeted people who were committing no crime and violated their First Amendment rights, the judge said.
"Although the state has a valid interest in maintaining order on its streets and sidewalks and in preventing violence by crowds, this interest is not sufficient to apply such a blanket rule to people assembling peacefully," she said.
The lawsuit regarding officers' actions is continuing, but the judge issued an injunction to immediately stop orders to keep moving toward lawful protesters. This violation of constitutional rights can't wait for the final outcome of the case, the judge said.
Still, authorities may order unruly crowds to disperse if there is a threat to public safety, the judge noted.
"Citizens who wish to gather in the wake of Michael Brown's tragic death have a constitutional right to do so, but they do not have the right to endanger lives of police officers or other citizens."