A federal judge on Monday issued an injunction barring police from enforcing what became known as “the five-second rule,” in which protesters in Ferguson, Missouri could only stay still for that brief amount of time. U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry ruled that the statute was unconstitutional because it violated protesters’ freedom of speech rights, as well as due process.
“[T]he policy fails to provide sufficient notice of what is illegal and because it was enforced arbitrarily,” wrote Perry in response to a case brought by the ACLU.
In the aftermath of unarmed, black teen Michael Brown's shooting death at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer, local police commonly relied on the rule as a crowd control tactic and even insisted that reporters had to be in the media staging area or keep walking. It led to one of the defining images from nights of upheaval in Ferguson: Bands of protesters marching along city streets, helping those who were elderly stay moving.
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, noted that such rules tend to increase tension when applied “haphazardly.” He add that “Judge Perry’s injunction is a huge win for peaceful protesters and those who believe in the rule of law.”
The police-enforced rule also prevented people from gathering on sidewalks, which also violated freedom of speech, according to Perry’s ruling.
"Citizens who wish to gather in the wake of Michael Brown's tragic death have a constitutional right to do so, but they do not have the right to endanger lives of police officers or other citizens," Perry wrote, adding that the ruling still allows officers to enforce refusal-to-disperse laws, one of the most commonly used charges used to arrest protesters in Ferguson. "The police must be able to perform their jobs, and nothing in this order restricts their ability to do that."
The Missouri State Highway Patrol released a statement late Monday responding to the ruling. "From the outset," the statement says, "the overriding goal of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Unified Command has been to allow citizens to speak while keeping the community safe. Today’s ruling is consistent with these principles because it allows protesters to exercise their constitutional rights to peaceably assemble but also allows law enforcement to impose appropriate restrictions to protect the public from violence."