No Prosecutions For Hopkins Protestors, But Civil Suits Still Possible; Protestors Endangered Lives and Harmed Disabled Students, Among Others
WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 9, 2019) – The students who were arrested at Johns Hopkins University for criminal trespass and illegal occupation of the main administration building reportedly will not be prosecuted, so students at Hopkins and at other universities are likely to be encouraged to commit more crimes to pressure administrators to give in to their future “demands,” suggests public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
If the threat of arrests for students who commit crimes which endanger and harm other students isn't enough to deter them from committing criminal trespass, destruction of university property, vandalism, and even physical attacks on invited speakers and faculty, perhaps it's time for a new remedy - civil law suits by victims of such campus crimes. While such suits have always been possible, and several have been successful, a recent ruling provides new ammunition and encouragement, argues Banzhaf.
A federal appeals court has ruled that a Black Lives Matter organizer who led his followers to block a highway as part of an illegal protest can be sued by persons injured as a result; a decision likely to prompt civil law suits against others who help organize illegal demonstrations.
This decision could open the door for people who suffer as a result of illegal demonstrations - including blockages of streets or bridges, sit ins or other occupations of buildings or businesses, etc. - to sue the leaders, often easily identified through social media, even if they cannot sue the individual protesters who caused the harm or the organization behind it, suggests public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
Banzhaf has been a major advocate for using legal action as a weapon against demonstrators who go far beyond their First Amendment rights and engage in criminal actions, often targeted at innocent bystanders, as a means of pressuring authorities to act on their grievances, since the threat of arrests, and of small fines for disturbing the peace or other misdemeanors, do not seem to have much deterrent effect.
Here civil law suits might be brought not only by the university, but also by disabled students who were not able to take their final exams as scheduled because they were to be administered in the occupied building, as well as by student workers - many on very tight budgets with fixed expenses - who could not pick up their salary checks on time. Perhaps more importantly, some criminal occupiers endangered the lives of anyone in the building by violating fire codes, and the direct orders of the fire marshal, by chaining the doors shut and blocking stairwells.
Moreover, charges Banzhaf, police for a variety of reasons too often do not arrest demonstrators who commit crimes in their presence, so those who wish to organize and/or engage in illegal blockages, occupations, and even theft and/or damage to property are encouraged to generate publicity for the cause and pressure authorities by committing crimes which, while perhaps "non-violent" in themselves, can nevertheless cause harm and considerable inconvenience to innocent members of the public.
Although this new ruling is based upon the leader's negligence in carrying out the illegal blockage of this highway, and seeks damages for the physical injury which resulted, the principle might well be applied to other torts [civil actions], and to other types of legal harm besides physical injury, suggests Banzhaf.
Indeed, he notes that the unanimous court opinion begins its legal analysis by reminding readers that "Louisiana Civil Code article 2315 provides that '[e]very act whatever of man that causes damage to another obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.'"
For example, protestors who illegally block a bridge, thereby effectively preventing drivers already on the bridge from moving their vehicles, would be guilty of the tort of false imprisonment and could be liable to each driver for nominal damages, as well as for actual damages which might occur if the inability of a driver or passenger (even in an ambulance) to get to an appointment on time resulted in medical or other harm, suggests Banzhaf.
Banzhaf notes that this false imprisonment legal theory, which he had originally suggested, was in fact used to bring civil actions against those who illegally caused the George Washington Bridge to become blocked. Civil law suits against those who commit crimes to try to get their way have also been successful in a number of notable instances.
When other groups learn that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been forced to pay $2.55 million to Japanese companies for illegally using acid and smoke bombs to disrupt their whaling, they may think twice before blocking traffic or occupying buildings to advance their agenda, says Banzhaf, who has promoted the idea - and the very slogan - of "Suing the Bastards" when the law is broken.
In another example, a student who illegally chained himself to some construction equipment because he opposed an oil pipeline was forced to pay out big bucks for his criminal conduct. As NPR reported it, he was apparently ready to accept a relatively painless conviction for trespass, but not to pay the pipeline company $39,000 in restitution.
Similarly, eleven protesters who allegedly engaged in illegal activities at the Mall of American faced restitution claims from the City of Bloomington.
In these and many similar situations, protesters are often willing to accept a small misdemeanor fine and conviction for a chance to focus attention on their cause, especially if it means they get to have a criminal trial which generates even more publicity for them and for their grievance, argues Banzhaf.
A civil law suit, in which each and every participant can be sued for the entire amount of the damages, might serve as a much more effective deterrent than the threat of arrests and possible criminal prosecution, suggests Banzhaf.
As illegal criminal protests by students continue to proliferate, causing harm as well as considerable inconvenience to colleges as well as third parties, those harmed may no longer be helpless, even when police refuse to take appropriate action or prosecutors decline to prosecute, and even when the individuals who actually caused specific harms cannot be conclusively identified, says Banzhaf.
While the new legal ruling is binding only on courts within the 5th Circuit, this decision could serve as legal precedent for additional law suits in federal courts in other jurisdictions, suggests Banzhaf, who has been called "The Law Professor Who Masterminded Litigation Against the Tobacco Industry," and an "Entrepreneur of Litigation, [and] a Trial Lawyer's Trial Lawyer."
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH),
2000 H Street, NW, Wash, DC 20052, USA
(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418
http://banzhaf.net/ jbanzhaf3ATgmail.com @profbanzhaf