HARTFORD – A federal appeals court has ruled that Stamford police officer Richard Gasparino violated Michael Friend’s rights during a protest in which Friend held a “Cops Ahead” sign on a sidewalk near a Stamford police cellphone sting site. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturns a lower court decision and sides with Friend in his claims that Gasparino violated Friend’s First Amendment rights to free speech and information and Fourth Amendment right against malicious prosecution.
In the February 27 decision, Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Gerard Lynch, Richard Sullivan, and Steven Menashi ruled that Friend was “speaking on a matter of public concern” by protesting police, and that Gasparino’s decision to arrest Friend and confiscate his signs violated Friend’s First Amendment right to free speech.
The panel of judges also ruled that Gasparino “had no lawful reason” to order Friend to stop protesting, reaffirming that Connecticut’s police interference statute cannot be used to prevent speech that police dislike.
“This decision is a solid affirmation of the fact that people have the right to protest the police. When Michael Friend held up a sign on a Stamford sidewalk to alert people to police activity, he was well within his First Amendment rights, and Stamford police never should have arrested him. This decision is good news for protesters’ rights and should serve as a reminder to all police in Connecticut that they cannot and should not silence speech like Mr. Friend’s,” said Elana Bildner, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut and an attorney on the case.
On April 12, 2018, Friend stood on a sidewalk near a Stamford police checkpoint holding a “Cops Ahead” sign. Gasparino approached Friend and took his sign. Friend began recording Gasparino with his phone, and Gasparino threatened to arrest him. Friend obtained a piece of cardboard, made a larger sign reading “Cops Ahead,” and moved to a different sidewalk location. Gasparino again approached Friend, who took out his phone to record. Gasparino seized the phone and another that Friend had in his pocket, arrested Friend, handcuffed him, and had his coworker transport him to the Stamford police station. At the police station, Gasparino charged Friend with misdemeanor interference. On May 7, 2018, prosecutors dropped the charge against Friend.
Friend’s lawsuit against Gasparino now returns to the lower court, which will consider whether Gasparino’s claims of qualified immunity prevent the court from awarding damages to Friend.
Friend is represented by ACLU Foundation of Connecticut attorneys Dan Barrett and Elana Bildner.