Case Dismissed Against Roanoke Protestor Arrested for Watching Television on City Sidewalk

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
July 10, 2009 12:00 am

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ACLU experts said free speech rights of “Must See TV” demonstrator violated


Roanoke, VA – A Roanoke General District Court judge today dismissed charges against Katherine Gwaltney, a Hollins University student who was arrested for participating in a public demonstration targeting the nation’s obsession with television viewing. The May 14 protest, entitled “Must See TV,” involved about 60 individuals taking television sets to the Roanoke City Market, a central plaza in the city’s downtown area, and staring blankly at the screens.

The demonstrators did not gather as a group, but spread out around the public plaza. When police asked Ms. Gwaltney to move from her place, she said, “can’t you just wait until the next commercial?” She was then handcuffed and arrested. Her arrest was caught on video. “We asked more than a dozen attorneys who practice constitutional law to view the video,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “They responded overwhelmingly that Ms. Gwaltney’s free speech rights had been violated.”

The ACLU and Ms. Gwaltney communicated about the incident, and ACLU lawyers were prepared to provide legal representation to Ms. Gwaltney had the charges not been dismissed.

“The right of protestors to stand in a public forum and express their views is nearly absolute under the First Amendment,” added Willis. “They can’t violate reasonable noise ordinances and they can’t block pedestrian traffic, but Ms. Gwaltney’s protest involved neither of these. It was the equivalent of standing on a soapbox in the town center, precisely the kind of expression the Bill of Rights was intended to protect.”

“The police got this backwards, as they often do in these situations,” said Willis. “Being sworn to uphold the Constitution means they should have been protecting Ms. Gwaltney’s right to protest, not preventing her from doing it. We hope that this incident will lead to some serious educational opportunities for police officers in Roanoke.”

“Naturally, we are pleased that the charges against Ms. Gwaltney have been dropped, but this kind arrest should never have occurred in the first place. There is nothing more chilling of free speech than to see someone arrested for doing it. Despite the good outcome here, the lasting image will be the one of Ms. Gwaltney being handcuffed and hauled off for simply exercising a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.”

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