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Supreme Court sends Louisiana Black Lives Matter lawsuit back for another round

A Baton Rogue police officer, who was injured in a 2016 demonstration against the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, sued DeRay Mckesson, claiming that he was negligent in staging the protest.
Image: Police arrest activist DeRay McKesson during a protest along Airline Highway
Police arrest activist DeRay Mckesson during a protest along Airline Highway, a major road that passes in front of the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters on July 9, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La.Max Becherer / AP file

The Supreme Court on Monday sent back to the lower courts a lawsuit arising from a 2016 Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling.

During the demonstration, someone threw something that struck a police officer in the face, causing serious injuries including brain trauma. The assailant was never identified, but the officer sued DeRay Mckesson, the activist who organized the demonstration, claiming that he had negligently staged the protest in a manner that caused the assault.

Mckesson said in a statement during the early phases of the case that allowing such lawsuits would prevent people from turning out for protests "out of the fear that they might be held responsible if anything happens."

Court decisions permitting the lawsuit to proceed "could make organizers all across the country responsible for all types of things they have no control over, such as random people coming into a protest and causing problems. We can't let that happen."

A federal district court judge threw the case out, ruling that Black Lives Matter was so loosely organized that no one was really in charge and that the First Amendment barred the lawsuit. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, saying that because the protest took place partly on a highway outside Baton Rouge Police headquarters a confrontation with police was a likely outcome.

By a 7-1 vote, the Supreme Court said Monday that the lower courts need to examine more closely whether Louisiana law would allow this kind of lawsuit. "The dispute presents novel issues of state law peculiarly calling for the exercise of judgment by state courts," the court said.

The lone dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, did not issue a separate opinion.

The court's newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, did not vote on the case. A court spokeswoman said Barrett did not take part in last week’s closed-door conference at which pending cases were discussed and was instead preparing for oral argument, which resume Monday with her taking part.