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Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Over three years after police officers unjustifiably attacked peaceful protestors and literally extinguished free speech, Cleveland has yet to hold anyone accountable.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – The City of Cleveland has settled with 12 more of the peaceful protestors whose free-speech rights police violated outside of the 2016 Republican National Convention, paying each $50,000. This brings to $925,000 the total payouts over unconstitutional conduct at the Convention by Cleveland officials, including officers and police chief Calvin Williams.

On July 20, 2016, outside of the convention in a City-designated “free-speech zone,” peaceful protestors gathered to assist Gregory Lee Johnson, who had informed the City in advance that he planned to engage in a flag-burning protest during the convention to protest the rising fascism represented by Donald Trump.

To maintain a safe protest, these activists—including Artemis Arrant, Diya Cruz, Linda Daitsman, Edward Diaz, Courtney Donelson, Ernestine Hamilton, Victoria Inguanta, Dominique Knox, Julie Leroy, Zullay Pichardo, Rafael Schiller-Laden, Joseph Scogin, and Stephen Fridley—created a safety circle around Richard Newburger and Mr. Johnson:

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
Peaceful protestors form a safety circle around Gregory Lee Johnson outside of the 2016 RNC.

In 1989, Mr. Johnson secured victory in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson, which held that symbolic speech of flag burning is constitutionally protected. The Court invalidated the arrest and prosecution of Mr. Johnson for his burning of an American flag in a protest outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention.

Twenty-seven years after this Supreme Court decision—and despite knowing exactly who Mr. Johnson is—Cleveland officials brazenly responded to Mr. Johnson’s good-faith notice to the City of his peaceful protest plans by sending Cleveland firefighters to the City’s designated “free-speech zone” during the RNC to prepare to pre-emptively censor Mr. Johnson and his fellow protestors:

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
Preparing to retaliate and quash free speech.

As video footage of the incident conclusively proves, the moment the flag was lit, Cleveland police officers unjustifiably extinguished the flag—thus also extinguishing these peaceful protesters’ constitutionally protected speech.

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
With plenty of space around him, Gregory Lee Johnson lights the flag in a constitutionally protected act of symbolic speech.

The City then bragged on social media about their unconstitutional conduct:

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
Cleveland police bragging about their retaliation.

Officers then stormed through and broke the safety circle, with one officer shouting the lie to Mr. Johnson, “You’re on fire. You’re on fire, stupid!” (Lieutenant Timothy Gaertner later lied in court under oath claiming, "two people—it was a male and a female, they were burning." But no one was.)

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
Officers charge Johnson and immediately attempt to extinguish the flag, with no justification.

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
The officer's big pretextual lie: "You're on fire!

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
Lie: "Youre on fire, stupid!"

Officers knocked protesters down onto the street, spraying chemical extinguisher at the flag and directly in Mr. Newburger’s face. The officers forcefully arrested all of the protesters without probable cause that any crime was committed.

Payouts to RNC-16 protestors for Cleveland-police free-speech retaliation approach nearly $1,000,000
Officers extinguish free speech and spray peaceful 2016 RNC protestor Richard Newburger with chemicals in the face.

The City then jailed 13 protestors for 24 hours while it scrambled to manufacture legal justification for their misdemeanor arrests. And the City held Mr. Knox and Mr. Scogin for over 24 hours while it scrambled to manufacture legal justification for their misdemeanor and felony arrests. Ms. Arrant, Ms. Cruz, Ms. Daitsman, Ms. Donelson, Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Inguanta, Mr. Knox, Ms. Leroy, Ms. Pichardo, and Mr. Scogin were held in solitary confinement.

City and county prosecutors were unrepentant in their zeal to prosecute these protestors, for over a year, the protestors endured the malicious prosecution. (Case law holds that they are immune from civil liability no matter what they do.)

Citing Texas v. Johnson, the Cleveland Municipal Court dismissed all misdemeanor charges. And the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas likewise dismissed the felony charges against Mr. Knox and Mr. Scogin.

On September 25, 2019, the City paid $50,000 each to Artemis Arrant, Diya Cruz, Linda Daitsman, Edward Diaz, Courtney Donelson, Ernestine Hamilton, Victoria Inguanta, Dominique Knox, Julie Leroy, Zullay Pichardo, Rafael Schiller-Laden, and Joseph Scogin.

Also in September 2019, the City settled for $50,000 Richard Newburger’s federal civil-rights lawsuit for his false arrest, malicious prosecution, civil-liability for criminal acts, and the First Amendment retaliation by the City, police chief Calvin Williams, and officer Matthew France.

In June 2019, the City settled for $225,000 Mr. Johnson’s similar federal civil-rights lawsuit for First Amendment-retaliation, malicious prosecution, false arrest, and civil liability for criminal acts against the City, its public-safety director Michael McGrath, police chief Calvin Williams, officers Timothy Gaertner, William Stanton, James Bellomy, and Donald Taylor.

In April 2019, the City settled for $50,000 Stephen Fridley’s own federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City, police chief Calvin Williams, and several police officers.

Subodh Chandra, lead counsel for these peaceful protesters, said:

As a former scout, I still experience discomfort if the flag I treasure even touches the ground. Since 9/11, I’ve worn a flag pin on every suit lapel. But while I may disagree with my clients' method of symbolic speech, once we live in a country where we are not free to express our dissent against the government’s policies—which is what the RNC-16 protestors were trying to express, then we are not living as a free people. And when police officers and prosecutors like those in Cleveland are free to violate clearly established civil rights—and then face no criminal or even job consequence—we are truly lost.
This massive payout of $925,000 is a stain on the integrity of the officers involved, Cleveland’s police division, and Cleveland itself. Officials’ blatant disregard for the Constitution at the 2016 RNC did not make us safer, but rather taught us to fear censorship and lawlessness from the very people sworn to protect our rights.
Cleveland officials may cling to the pathetic excuse, as they have before, that the settlements were paid from special RNC insurance money, but that just highlights their indifference to constitutional rights. They think, “Who cares? Insurance paid for it. We don’t have to do anything.”
The video footage of the police attack on these protestors proves that Cleveland police lied to the public and in court under oath about what happened. They claimed Mr. Johnson had set himself on fire, but the videos (and the lack of any singes on anyone's body or clothing) definitively disprove that.
While no amount of money will ever make up for speech silenced at that critical historical moment, every penny of the $925,000 payout speaks volumes about officials’ culpability. Unfortunately, our experience in case after case, including cases still pending, is that Cleveland officials have a policy, pattern, and practice of retaliating against free speech. And given the failure to hold anyone accountable—and truly astonishing media indifference, we can be sure of one thing: they are going to do it again.
And that should disturb us all greatly.

Ms. Arrant, Ms. Cruz, Ms. Daitsman, Mr. Diaz, Ms. Donelson, Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Inguanta, Mr. Knox, Ms. Leroy, Ms. Pichardo, Mr. Schiller-Laden, Mr. Scogin, Mr. Newburger, Mr. Fridley, and Mr. Johnson were represented by Subodh Chandra, Ashlie Case Sletvold, and Brian Bardwell.


Video of 2016 RNC protestors being attacked by Cleveland police. The video definitively proves police lied about what happened.

Related Practice Areas
First AmendmentGovernment ethics, misconduct, fraud, & abusePolice misconduct & brutalityMalicious prosecution, abuse of process, and false arrest
Tags
gregory-lee-johnsonrepublican-national-conventionzullay-pichardorichard-newburgerflag-burningcalvin-williamsfirst-amendment-retaliationfirst-amendmentmalicious-prosecutionfalse-arreststephen-fridleyartemis-arrantlinda-daitsmandiya-cruzedward-diazvictoria-inguantaernestine-hamiltondominique-knoxjoseph-scoginjulie-leroycourtney-donelsonrafael-schiller-laden

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