Supreme Court Rules for Police Officers in Free Speech Retaliation Case

It has been three cases and nearly a decade in the making but the Supreme Court has finally ruled in Nieves v. Bartlett that the existence of probable cause defeats a First Amendment retaliatory arrest case…with one, small caveat. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in favor of the broader ruling in this case.

While police officer Luis Nieves and Russell Bartlett have different versions of what happened at Artic Man, a weeklong winter sports festival in Alaska, even the Ninth Circuit agreed that Sergeant Nieves had probable cause to arrest Bartlett. Sergeant Nieves knew Bartlett had been drinking and talking loudly when he saw Bartlett stand close to another officer and the officer push Bartlett away. But Bartlett claimed Sergeant Nieves really arrested him in violation of his First Amendment free speech rights because he had refused to speak to Sergeant Nieves previously, which Bartlett reminded Sergeant Nieves of when he was being arrested.

The Ninth Circuit held that Bartlett could bring a First Amendment retaliatory arrest case even though there was probable cause to arrest him because a retaliatory arrest would “chill a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activity” and “Bartlett had presented enough evidence that his speech was a but-for cause of the arrest.”   

The Supreme Court disagreed 6-3 holding that probable cause generally defeats a retaliatory arrest claim. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, relied primarily on Hartman v. Moore (2006), where the Court held that probable cause defeats retaliatory prosecution claims. In Hartman, the Court noted that proving causation is difficult in retaliatory prosecution cases because “the official with the malicious motive does not carry out the retaliatory action himself—the decision to bring charges is instead made by a prosecutor, who is generally immune from suit and whose decisions receive a presumption of regularity.”

Similarly, it is difficult to determine if protected speech is the cause of an arrest because “protected speech is often a ‘wholly legitimate consideration’ for officers when deciding whether to make an arrest. Officers frequently must make ‘split-second judgments’ when deciding whether to arrest, and the content and manner of a suspect’s speech may convey vital information—for example, if he is ‘ready to cooperate’ or rather ‘present[s] a continuing threat.’ If probable cause doesn’t defeat a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim “[a]ny inartful turn of phrase or perceived slight during a legitimate arrest could land an officer in years of litigation.”

The Court’s caveat is the “no-probable cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.” An example Chief Justice Roberts offers is a person complaining about police misconduct being arrested for jaywalking. Police officers typically “exercise their discretion” and don’t arrest people for very minor crimes like jaywalking. While Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Kavanaugh, agreed with this “narrow qualification,” Justice Thomas, who otherwise joined the majority opinion, did not.  

In Reichle v. Howards (2012) the Supreme Court failed to decide whether to adopt the no-probable-cause rule in First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims. Instead it gave qualified immunity to Secret Service agents who arrested Steven Howards for touching Vice President Dick Cheney and lying about it. Howards told Cheney his “policies in Iraq are disgusting.”

In Lozman v. Riviera Beach (2018) the Court held that Fane Lozman, who was arrested at a city council meeting for refusing to stop talking, was not barred from bringing a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim even though the city had probable cause to arrest him. Lozman claimed the city council arrested him as part of a strategy to intimidate him because he filed a lawsuit against the city. The Court declined to decide as a general rule whether probable cause is required to bring a more typical retaliatory arrest cases like Nieves.

Sean Gallagher, Bennett Cohen, and Britton St. Onge of Polsinelli wrote the SLLC amicus brief which the following organizations joined:  the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.