Ferguson, Mo. – One civil rights group has found a novel way to make sure protesters taking to the streets over the death of Michael Brown understand their legal rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been handing out black t-shirts at protests and other events here with the slogan, “I know my rights.”
Underneath, the t-shirts spell out those rights: “I have the First Amendment right to: Peacefully assemble; photograph or videotape police; protest in public spaces; protest without a permit.”
At a protest march in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis on Sunday night, ACLU staff were distributing the t-shirts widely, and getting an enthusiastic response from protesters.
Jeff Mittman, the executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said that although protesters usually have a general idea of their rights, it helps to have it spelled out.
“Knowledge is power,” said Mittman. “So we want to have it right there on their chests, front and center, that the First Amendment is important.”
“We think the message is getting through,” Mittman added, noting recent comments from Missouri governor Jay Nixon and St. Louis mayor Francis Slay that emphasized the importance of protecting First Amendment rights.
Since not long after the unrest began here in the wake of Brown’s death on Aug. 9, the legal rights of protesters and the media have been a subject of contention. Protest leaders and civil rights advocates have accused police of violating First Amendment rights by arresting reporters and at times setting strict rules for where protesters can assemble, and for how long. Police have acknowledged some missteps, but said their goal has been to protect public safety.
The ACLU has been active in the controversy. On Friday, it won court orders requiring local and state police here to abide by a prior agreement allowing protesters and media to record law enforcement officers. Sunday, it expressed concern over the arrest on Saturday of a News2Share reporter at a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department.
At least one protest leader, Joshua Williams, 18, appeared in no doubt about his rights at Sunday’s march. As protesters blocked an intersection, he held his phone up to the window of a police car to record its driver, and continued to record as he ran alongside the car for several yards while it drove away. After the police car stopped and turned around, Williams kept recording as he stood directly in front of the car.