Meyer Case Raises Significant Questions of Campus Speech and Student Responsibilities

The videotaped incident involving Andrew Meyer and Senator John Kerry has caused an uproar among students and faculty. Meyer’s begging security staff not to “tase me, bro” struck a nerve among students who feel that security and police often over-react. As I noted earlier, there are recent examples of security personnel and police officer engaging in heavy-handed responses to students gatherings or protests. The Meyer incident represents a good subject for study because both sides have legitimate claims to make. On the side of security, there is no question that Meyer’s was acting in a boorish, obnoxious manner and that he did resist when they attempted to escort him out. He appears to have a reputation for such stunts. For Meyer’s background, click here
However, Kerry is heard just before he is grabbed, saying “That’s all right, let me answer his question.” In such circumstances, it is better to let the speaker and the other students defuse the situation. It is equally clear that a taser was not needed. Too often tasers are being used as the first rather than the last resort. They have become a routine measure because it is very hard to sue for a taser incident. This may be the exception because it was taped. Most are not taped and leave the victim claiming innocence against the testimony of officers. Tasers have killed individuals and are viewed as a torture device internationally when used abusively. For a recent story on one such death of a mentally ill woman tasered six times, click here Indeed, as I have previously written, there is a disturbing use of these devices in courtrooms. Click here for a prior column.

The widespread availability of these devices on campuses is a serious concern given their history of abuse. Universities are places not just of learning but debate. Passions run high in this environment, which is why it is so exciting and interesting to be part of such a community. Students like Meyer should accept a modicum of responsibility in such circumstances. However, the use of such a device adds a disturbing and chilling element to campus life. Notably, Meyer was under the control of multiple officers at the time and was not armed. While he had pulled away, he had not attacked an officer. He was arrested while trying to make a speech, not engage in a physical attack or property damage. There was no justification for the escalation of force in such a circumstance. The lesson learned is not one that we wish to teach on campus: that a student engages in protest speech at his own risk.

I am currently counsel in the World Bank/IMF protest case representing various student journalists and observors arresting in a mass arrest near the White House. They were abusively charged with failure to obey an order and we expect to win this case. The overreaction in the World Bank case led to hundreds of unlawful arrests because police who went into a panic by the appearance of protesters exercising their first amendment rights. In response, they arrested anyone within the trap zone, including protesters, nurses, tourists, even a DOJ lawyer. Like the Florida case, the World Bank case creates a powerful chilling effect for people who wish to speak out on issues of great public importance.

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