ACLU Defends Freedom of Speech at Minnesota Court of Appeals

Protester Jeffrey Berger appeals his conviction stemming from a protest of the police killing of Philando Castile

Affiliate: ACLU of Minnesota
May 11, 2018 11:45 am

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St. Paul, MINN. —The Ramsey County District Court convicted Jeffrey Berger of public nuisance for participating in a protest that wound up on Interstate 94 in July 2016. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is appealing Berger’s conviction to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

A police officer shot and killed Philando Castile in July 2016. Demonstrations and public outcry quickly followed. The demonstrations not only protested the killing of Castile, but also highlighted the many people of color whom police have killed. Jeffrey Berger was one of 47 protesters arrested during a march that went onto Interstate 94.

“Freedom of speech is necessary for people to organize for justice. They should not be afraid to use their voices. When people are frightened and silenced, bad things continue to happen,” stated Jeffrey Berger. “It’s important for white people like me to step forward and take action in order to make change.”

Officers on the scene described the protesters as peaceful and stated that most were standing and had “their arms linked together [and] chanting and yelling.” Police arrested 47 marchers “for being on the freeway.” Jeffrey Berger was found guilty of public nuisance. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, suspended upon successful completion of one year of probation, and a $300 fine.

“The State may not wield the vague and excessively broad public nuisance statute like a weapon to punish Mr. Berger’s First Amendment right to protest injustice in his community,” stated ACLU cooperating attorney Pari McGarraugh, of Fredrikson & Byron. “That’s why we’re appealing this conviction.”

The ACLU argues:

  • Berger’s conviction violates his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly;
  • The public nuisance statue is too vague; and
  • There was insufficient evidence to support a conviction.

“By prosecuting Jeffrey Berger, the state disregarded the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free expression,” stated Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU-MN. “Protest is not always convenient, nor does the Constitution require it to be. The state does not have a compelling reason to criminalize protests simply because they are on a highway.”

The appeal requests that the Minnesota Court of Appeals vacate Berger’s conviction.

Link to brief:

Kevin C. Riach, Pari I. McGarraugh, and Jacob P. Harris of Fredrikson & Byron, and Teresa Nelson of the ACLU-MN represent Berger in the appeal.

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