By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Vegetarian activists have sued in federal court two Baltimore police officers who forced them to stop leafleting at the Inner Harbor — the latest legal front after years of disputes over the constitutional rights of protesters in the city.
A former Baltimore teacher and three other vegetarian activists filed the lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court over events that took place in May 2011. The lawsuit, which does not name the city nor the Police Department, alleges the officers violated their constitutional rights.
Since then, a number of other lawsuits have prompted institutional changes. City officials agreed last year to loosen restrictions on when and where demonstrations can take place, and the Police Department recently instituted new rules ordering officers to allow citizens to protest in more locations and film officers in public places.
But the plaintiffs say they still have concerns that some rank-and-file officers aren’t following the rules — or the Constitution. They contend they had received permission from city government three years ago to leaflet in the area.
“The goal is to make sure that no officer feels they are above the law,” said Bruce Friedrich, 44, who was then a ninth-grade teacher at Baltimore Freedom Academy and now works for the animal protection group Farm Sanctuary. The officers “were trying to take advantage of people they thought didn’t know their rights.”
The Police Department and the mayor’s office declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
Friedrich said he and six others were passing out more than 1,000 pro-vegetarian leaflets in downtown Baltimore, near the Barnes & Noble bookstore and the National Aquarium, among other locations, when police officers ordered them to leave the area.
Friedrich, who said officers refused to look at their permit documentation, began to record the officers’ actions on his cellphone, and the police ordered him to stop, according to the lawsuit.
“Unless they were very badly trained, they knew they were violating our rights and they did it anyway,” Friedrich said. “We’re attempting to ensure future people are able to exercise their rights.”
Friedrich’s attorney, Bryan Pease, said the plaintiffs had no issue with city policies and therefore chose to sue the officers individually. In such cases, the city represents the officers in court and covers paying any judgments for on-duty issues.
“The officers directly violated the city’s own policy,” Pease said.
He said he did not know the officers’ full names but would learn them upon receiving discovery materials in court. The city’s police union did not respond to a request for comment.
The Police Department has been sued multiple times over free speech issues.
Last year, Baltimore officials approved a payment of $98,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union to settle a federal lawsuit over protesters’ rights in Baltimore. In settling the suit — in which a group of anti-war protesters called the “Women in Black” were plaintiffs — city officials agreed to change the rules.
The new rules allow groups of up to 30 people to protest or pass out fliers without obtaining a permit at all city parks and 10 designated locations, including the downtown McKeldin Square. The rules also provide for “instant permits” to be issued by police when larger-than-expected crowds attend a protest.
McKeldin Square, long a city-designated protest site, had been taken over for two months in late 2011 by Occupy Baltimore, a national movement against income disparity, among other issues.
The protesters said the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks refused their request to permanently occupy all of the square. The city offered to provide tents in exchange for other concessions, but talks stalled and police cleared the square in a pre-dawn raid in December.
New locations that had previously been off-limits to protesters without a permit include Rash Field, Kaufman Pavilion, the area west of the Baltimore Visitor Center on the Inner Harbor, and the grass field between the World Trade Center and the National Aquarium.
Another lawsuit prompted the Baltimore Police Department to institute a new policy that prohibits officers from stopping people from taping or photographing police actions. Those new rules were unveiled as the city agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Christopher Sharp, who said police seized his cellphone and deleted the video of an arrest at the Preakness Stakes in 2010.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts in March held a rare joint news conference with the American Civil Liberties Union, apologized to Sharp and declared: “We’re changing the culture in the Police Department as a whole.”
David Rocah, a staff attorney with Maryland’s ACLU chapter, was involved with both of the recent settlements.
“When we filed our ‘Women in Black’ suit, the rules that existed were not constitutional,” he said. “There ended up being a complete rewrite of the park rules in a effort to make them constitutional. The rules that came out of that are a significant improvement.”
Rocah added that he hopes the new rules will prevent future violations of the First Amendment. “Our goal when we litigate these cases is to vindicate the important rights at stake and to ensure that the problems don’t recur,” he said.
Friedrich’s suit does not seek specific damages. In addition to constitutional violations, it also accuses the officers of battery and unreasonable seizure. Friedrich, of Washington D.C., is joined as plaintiff in the suit by his wife, Alka Chandna, and fellow activists Elena Johnson of Cockeysville and Lesley Parker-Rollins of Lutherville.
Friedrich said the fliers he was passing out were not offensive in nature.
“They had vegetarian recipes and information about vegetarianism,” he said. “The whole thing was completely absurd.”