September 14, 2010

Bear Atwood, ACLU-MS Acting Legal Director, 601-354-3408 or 862-8658;
Nsombi Lambright, ACLU-MS Executive Director, 601-573-3978;

JACKSON, MS - The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi announced today the filing of a civil lawsuit on behalf of a Jackson man who was unconstitutionally arrested and imprisoned after exercising his first amendment right to observe a police interaction in a public parking lot and then asking for the officers' names and badge numbers.

"We do not have secret police in the United States," said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "Observing police in public are fundamental rights, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Individuals must know that they can exercise this right without fear of arrest."

The plaintiff, Brent Cox, is also an ACLU of Mississippi employee, although police apparently did not know this at the time of his arrest. He serves as the organization's Public Education Coordinator, a position that includes teaching people across Mississippi about their right to participate in government and hold government accountable to the people. This includes the right to observe and document police activity.

"People have a fundamental right to observe police in public, said Cox. "Police are more likely follow the law and to act according to training and policy if they know people care enough to watch them in public. People have greater trust of police officers if they know they won't be harassed or arrested for watching them."

"Police must respect the right to observe police in public, including the right to take notes, video or just watch," said Bear Atwood, ACLU of Mississippi's Acting Legal Director. "If police arrest people for constitutionally protected behavior, of course the ACLU is going to intervene. Our mission is to defend the Constitutional rights of everyone. We will not stand by and let fundamental First Amendment rights be trampled."

Today's lawsuit seeks to recover damages specifically for the First Amendment right to observe under the First Amendment, for unreasonable detention and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, violation of due process of law and for arbitrary governmental action under the Fourteenth Amendment, and for violation of the public policy of the State of Mississippi.

"Educating the public about their rights as they interact with law enforcement is a key strategy for the ACLU-MS's Criminal Justice Reform Campaign. It is our hope that this lawsuit makes citizens and law enforcement aware that police are not above the law," added Lambright.

*A copy of the lawsuit can be found online at /downloads/coxvjackson.pdf