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Cleveland settles First Amendment lawsuit alleging politically motivated arrest and prosecution of peaceful protester at 2016 RNC

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Suit alleged officers retaliated against Steven Fridley for participating in a flag-burning demonstration with Gregory Lee Johnson

CLEVELAND, OHIO – The City of Cleveland has settled a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed by Steven Fridley alleging the City, police chief Calvin Williams, and several police officers violated Mr. Fridley's First Amendment right to peacefully protest the American government. Outside of the 2016 Republican National Convention, Fridley had joined Gregory Lee Johnson’s constitutionally protected burning of an American flag, peacefully chanting words of protest in a designated free-speech zone.

The complaint alleged that on July 20, 2016, shortly before then-candidate Donald Trump was to take the RNC’s main stage, Mr. Fridley and his fellow protesters formed a safety circle around Mr. Johnson, who had informed the City that he planned to repeat his famous protest in Cleveland. But after Cleveland police officers arrested Mr. Johnson, according to the Complaint, they backed Mr. Fridley and the other members of his protest group against a wall, and arrested them in turn. Mr. Fridley was jailed and charged with obstructing official business, aggravated disturbance of the peace, and disobeying a lawful order. The City continued unashamedly prosecuting him until October 20, 2017, when Judge Charles L. Patton of the Cleveland Municipal Court dismissed all charges, following the Supreme Court's teaching in Texas v. Johnson.

On October 20, 2018, Mr. Fridley filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, alleging that the City, its police chief, and its police officers unlawfully prosecuted him for exercising his First Amendment rights, and manufactured false reports and evidence under a policy of pursuing “sham charges” intended “to create plausible deniability” and “conceal their politically motivated censorship of a lawful protest.”

Cleveland has settled Mr. Fridley’s claims for $50,000.

“This case is a timely reminder that respect for dissent is more patriotic than censorship, and even clear instructions from the Supreme Court cannot prevent Orwellian ordeals,” said Patrick Kabat, one of Mr. Fridley's attorneys. “Our officers must protect our freedom to criticize our government, not enforce their own politics. Mr. Fridley’s liberty remained in jeopardy for a year because he exercised First Amendment freedoms the Supreme Court guaranteed decades ago to the very man whose protest he joined. Nothing can restore the speech the City silenced, but we hope his voice resumes.”

Subodh Chandra, also counsel for Mr. Fridley, added, "It remains troubling that Cleveland has still done nothing to discipline the officers who retaliated against Mr. Fridley for exercising his First Amendment rights—despite the U.S. Supreme Court's Texas v. Johnson holding and the municipal court's decision the prosecution was unconstitutional under that holding. It's also disturbing that the City, police chief, and law department apparently failed to properly train officers in the run-up to the 2016 RNC. This doesn't bode well for Cleveland's future in honoring free speech and protecting protestors—and suggests officers remain free to run amok and betray the Constitution."

The case was captioned Fridley v. City of Cleveland, et al., Case No. 1:18-cv-02431, and was pending before Judge Solomon Oliver of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

Subodh Chandra and Patrick Kabat of The Chandra Law Firm LLC,, represent Mr. Fridley.

Gregory Lee Johnson's suit against Cleveland over the same incident remains pending. Chandra and Kabat represent him as well.

Related Practice Areas
First AmendmentGovernment Ethics, Misconduct, Fraud, & AbusePolice Misconduct & BrutalityMalicious Prosecution, Abuse of Process, and False Arrest

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