For the first time, a judge has ruled that police in Ferguson, Missouri, violated protesters’ First Amendment rights. U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry issued a preliminary injunction on Monday saying police can’t force protesters to keep moving if they “are violating no statute or regulation.” Mustafa Abdullah, who works for the ACLU, filed the suit on August 18 after seeing police arrest people for violating the “five-second rule.” Many demonstrators and journalists were threatened with arrest if they stood still for more than five seconds, though no such law exists.
Though both Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told the Washington Post that they’ve never heard of the rule, Judge Perry wrote in her ruling that evidence shows police were haphazardly applying it in Ferguson:
Some law enforcement officers told people that they could stand still for no more than five seconds. 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.
According to St. Louis Public Radio, the rule was developed because “officers had noticed that whenever marchers paused, crowds would spread into the streets, blocking vehicle and foot traffic.” Judge Perry cautioned that her ruling does not prevent police from enforcing laws intended to control crowds, such as the state’s failure-to-disperse law.
“Citizens who wish to gather in the wake of Michael Brown’s tragic death have a constitutional right to do so,” she wrote. “But they do not have the right to endanger the lives of police officers or other citizens. The police must be able to perform their jobs, and nothing in this order restricts their ability to do that.”