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Experts debate First Amendment issues in Tasering

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Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2007 12:00 am

Although the Tasering of Andrew Meyer, a UF telecommunication senior, has been scrutinized from every camera angle, the legal implications of the situation remain clouded.

The Sept. 17 Tasering incident at a speech by Sen. John Kerry sponsored by Student Government's Accent speaker's bureau has sparked nationwide debate over First Amendment rights and boundaries of police action.

Meyer was arrested and Tasered by University Police Department officers after asking Kerry several questions and refusing to give up the microphone.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issued a press release Sept. 18 decrying the use of police force in the incident.

"People have a reasonable expectation to ask questions in a public setting - even if they are aggressive and some disagree with their position - that is free speech plain and simple," said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida executive director, in the release.

Whether Meyer would have a valid court case on First Amendment grounds is a matter of debate among experts.

Tom Julin, a Miami attorney who specializes in First Amendment practice, said Meyer would have an uphill battle to prove UPD officers violated his rights.

The main issue would be whether police action was prompted by the content of what Meyer was saying at the time, Julin said.

"Most courts are not going to want to second-guess the actions of the police officers unless it is very clear that the police were doing something to suppress the content of the speech rather than directed at the conduct of the speaker," he said.

If there were a court case, the police officers would not have to prove that they took the best possible course of action, said Tom Poulton, a Winter Park attorney who deals with cases against law enforcement for excessive use of force and false arrest.

"The question isn't going to be whether it could have been done better," Poulton said. "The question is going to be whether it was done reasonably, considering the circumstances."

To have a valid First Amendment case, Julin said Meyer would have to prove that police reacted against what he was saying rather than how he was acting.

"He would have to show … that he was not being disruptive, that he was not in violation of any content-neutral rules, that he was following all the rules and that he was not violating anyone else's rights," Julin said.

As for the ability of Accent to impose rules on an event, the legal lines are clearly defined, he said. Prior to the event, Accent could have imposed any rules not related to the content of the speech without infringing on First Amendment rights of audience members or speakers.

"They could say, 'We'll only allow 100 people to attend,'" Julin said. "They can say, 'Only 10 minutes for questions' or '30 minutes for questions.' But they can't impose rules to the content of the speech, like, 'Only Democrats can ask John Kerry questions.'"

Taking action against any person in violation of those rules would not be censorship, Julin added. The use of police force, if used simply to maintain order, could even be seen as protecting First Amendment rights.

"The maintenance of order obviously protects the right of John Kerry to speak and protects the rights of the students to hear what the speaker has to say," Julin said.

Whether the police were in violation of Meyer's rights, the amount of attention the Tasering brought to the situation is something to learn from, he said.

"This might be a good lesson for the police that if you use this kind of force, even if the force was justifiable under the circumstances, the use of force brings more controversy to the situation," Julin said.

Welcome to the discussion.