“Defendant Shall Not Attend Protests.”
By Dara Lind
Federal authorities are using a new tactic in their battle against protesters in Portland, Oregon: arrest them on offenses as minor as “failing to obey” an order to get off a sidewalk on federal property — and then tell them they can’t protest anymore as a condition for release from jail.
Legal experts describe the move as a blatant violation of the constitutional right to free assembly, but at least 12 protesters arrested in recent weeks have been specifically barred from attending protests or demonstrations as they await trials on federal misdemeanor charges.
“Defendant may not attend any other protests, rallies, assemblies or public gathering in the state of Oregon,” states one “Order Setting Conditions of Release” for an accused protester, alongside other conditions such as appearing for court dates. The orders are signed by federal magistrate judges.
For other defendants, the restricted area is limited to Portland, where clashes between protesters and federal troops have grown increasingly violent in recent weeks. In at least two cases, there are no geographic restrictions; one release document instructs, “Do not participate in any protests, demonstrations, rallies, assemblies while this case is pending.”
Protesters who have agreed to stay away from further demonstrations say they felt forced to accept those terms to get out of jail.
A dozen protesters facing federal charges are barred from going to “public gatherings” as a condition of release from jail — a tactic one expert described as “sort of hilariously unconstitutional.”
“Those terms were given to me after being in a holding cell after 14 hours,” Bailey Dreibelbis, who was charged July 24 with “failing to obey a lawful order,” told ProPublica. “It was pretty cut-and-dried, just, ‘These are your conditions for [getting out] of here.’
“If I didn’t take it, I would still be in holding. It wasn’t really an option, in my eyes.”
It could not be learned who drafted the orders barring the protesters from joining further demonstrations. The documents reviewed by ProPublica were signed by a federal magistrate in Portland. Magistrates have broad authority to set the terms of release for anyone accused of a crime. They typically receive recommendations from U.S. Pretrial Services, an arm of the U.S. Courts, which can gather input from prosecutors and others involved in the case. ProPublica identified several instances in which the protest ban was added to the conditions of release document when it was drafted, before it was given to the judge. It remained unclear whether the limits on protesting were initiated by Justice Department officials or the magistrates hearing the cases.
Constitutional lawyers said conditioning release from jail on a promise to stop joining protests were overly broad and almost certainly a violation of the First Amendment right to free assembly.
“The government has a very heavy burden when it comes to restrictions on protest rights and on assembly,” noted Jameel Jaffer of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. “It’s much easier for the government to meet that burden where it has individualized information about a threat. So for example, they know that a particular person is planning to carry out some unlawful activity at a particular protest.”
Over the past week, the federal government has sharply increased the number of protesters it’s charging with federal crimes — often for petty offenses that are classified as federal misdemeanors only because they occur on federal property. Court documents reviewed by ProPublica show that over a third of the protesters are charged with “failing to obey a lawful order,” which 14 protesters were charged with between July 21 and July 24 alone.
The office of the U.S. attorney for Oregon, Billy J. Williams, did not respond to ProPublica’s questions about who was making charging decisions. In a recent interview with The Oregonian, Williams urged local citizens to demand that “violent extremists” who have attempted to break through the fence outside the federal courthouse leave. “Until that happens, we’re going to do what we need to do to protect federal property.”
Craig Gabriel, an assistant U.S. attorney who works for Williams, insisted the office understood and respected the right to protest racial injustice. “People are angry. Very large crowds are gathering, expressing deep and legitimate anger with police and the justice system,” Gabriel told The Oregonian. “We wholeheartedly support the community’s constitutionally protected rights to assemble together in large, even rowdy protests and engage in peaceful and civil disobedience.”
Gabriel did not mention the written restrictions against protest that have been made a condition of release for some of those arrested.
Several protesters who were let go on July 23 had bans against demonstrating added by hand on their release documents by Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta, who signed off on them, a review by ProPublica found. Acosta’s office did not respond to ProPublica’s questions.
For those released on July 24, the restriction was added to the original typed document, also signed by Acosta. One protester arrested and released earlier in the month had his conditions of release modified at his arraignment on July 24. The modified order, signed by Acosta, added a protest ban not previously included.
Three of the 15 protesters charged on July 27, in orders signed by Magistrate Judge Jolie A. Russo, also had explicit protest restrictions added to their release terms. (One release order has not yet been posted to the federal courts database.) Russo’s office did not reply to ProPublica’s questions.
“I don’t see that as constitutionally defensible,” Jaffer said. And I find it difficult to believe that any judge would uphold it.”
The ACLU’s Somil Trivedi said, “Release conditions should be related to public safety or flight” — in other words, the risk that the defendant will abscond. “This is neither.” He described the handwritten addition of a protest ban to a release document as “sort of hilariously unconstitutional.” …