ACLU of Vermont is claiming Burlington police violated the First Amendment when they arrested multiple people of color.
An Aug. 23 letter from ACLU of Vermont states cases in which boys and men of color were charged with disorderly conduct for what ACLU calls protected speech.
The letter was sent to Burlington police chief Brandon Del Pozo and Chittenden County State Attorney Sarah George.
The organization received complaints about some of the incidents, said Jay Diaz, ACLU staff attorney.
ACLU attorneys decided to write to the Burlington Police Department after internal conversations and discussions with those involved in the incidents, Diaz said.
“We decided this represents a concerning pattern, especially regarding the First Amendment rights of communities of color,” Diaz said.
Diaz wrote in the letter that confrontational and challenging speech deserves greater protection when directed at police officers than when directed at civilians.
He cited the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Houston v. Hill 1987, which states, “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
“It’s a little alarming,” junior John Zambarano said. “I feel like students on this campus should’ve received some sort of notification from the administration.”
Del Pozo said in a Sept. 14 email to the ACLU that the police department would implement training on First Amendment rights and the ways in which they affect officers’ interactions with the public, according to a Sept.15 Burlington Free Press article.
“My intended training will focus on encouraging officers to use discretion in instances where probable cause exists but the content of the speech act invokes First Amendment considerations,” Del Pozo said in the article.
“Freedom of speech gives Vermonters great latitude in creating verbal disturbances directed at police, as it should, but the right to do so isn’t absolute,” he said.
While Del Pozo’s email addressed the ACLU’s concerns, the police department has not contacted the ACLU with any requests for help in putting the training together, Diaz said.
“We are grateful to see the chief take some action,” Diaz said. “We hope that action actually occurs and that the department changes its behavior.”
The four cases discussed in the letter took place between December 2016 and June 2017.
Two of these took place in Roosevelt Park, one took place on Church Street and another took place on Main Street.
Del Pozo and the Burlington Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.