Do you have the right to peacefully march or will you be jailed?

The Brooklyn Bridge Mass Arrest Lawsuit: A major battle for the future of free speech

It is impossible to overstate the importance and impact on fundamental free speech rights of the Brooklyn Bridge mass arrest lawsuit. It was filed on behalf of the more than 700 people who were illegally arrested during a peaceful march on October 1, 2011.

So far we have won two major victories — one at the Federal District Court level and another at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Second Circuit just two weeks ago — as the city unsuccessfully tried to dismiss the lawsuit.

The City is mounting a major legal battle and expending enormous resources to preserve the status quo. That is a status quo in which police can simply arrest protesters without warning, chilling free speech activity and suppressing people's movements. That status quo must go, but we need your help to make that happen. Please take a moment to make an urgently needed contribution to this battle for this next critical stage.

This lawsuit will have a far-reaching and historic impact on First Amendment rights in New York City and throughout the country. We can see from New York City to Ferguson what happens when the police treat peaceful protest as a military enemy that must be defeated and suppressed.

Please show your support for the PCJF legal effort to defend the basic rights to engage in dissent.

The PCJF at 20
The PCJF, 20 Years of Defending Freedom, Dissent and Constitutional Rights

At stake is a central question: can the police suddenly mass arrest hundreds of peaceful protestors in a police-escorted demonstration without giving them fair warning or notice beforehand?

The answer is not a foregone conclusion. To you and me and any person with a sense of fundamental fairness and justice, let alone a copy of the Constitution, the answer would be: of course not. 

But the NYPD and the City of New York have argued in Court that they have the right to do just that. It is precisely what happened on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011 when 700-plus Occupy protestors were escorted by NYPD commanders onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Midway across the bridge NYPD commanders suddenly turned around, ordered that the front and back of the march be sealed and blocked by police lines and orange netting, and arrested everyone who was trapped on the bridge.

On Aug. 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with us and affirmed what the U.S District Court judge had already found in reviewing the facts as pled and shown on video of the Brooklyn Bridge mass arrest. Police officers issued a “warning” that only a few people out of the thousands affected could have possibly have heard, and then implicitly invited hundreds of protesters onto the bridge before arresting them and charging them with disorderly conduct. 

The City of New York says that these actions by the police are lawful and that they would do it again. It’s up to all of us working together to stop them – will you help in this fight? 

The success of the lawsuit would mean that in the future police officers and their chain of command would have to give audible warnings and fair notice. It means illegal police actions would have consequences. The NYPD have repeatedly used this trap and detain tactic against peaceful law-abiding protesters to suppress and end mass assembly over the years. 

This practice has been successfully ended in other major cities – including in the Nation’s capital, Washington D.C., as a consequence of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s litigation against these unconstitutional police tactics. It’s time for this illegal practice to end in New York City too. People must be able to come together in peaceful assembly to demand change without the fear that they will be jailed for exercising their free speech rights. 

This is clearly a moment with huge implications for the future of protest and free speech in New York City, and the whole country. The police want to pull out all the stops to block change. The question is whether we, the people of conscience who believe in defending dissent, will pull out all the stops to bring about that change? We are committed to this fight, will you help us?

Please make as generous a donation as you can on behalf of civil liberties and help the PCJF fight this legal challenge. Your online donation is tax-deductible. You can also make a tax deductible contribution by check by sending it to: Partnership for Civil Justice Fund; 617 Florida Avenue NW; Washington DC 20001.

We appreciate each and every contribution.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard


Mara Verheyden Hilliard signature
 Mara Verheyden-Hilliard
 PCJF Executive Director