City Code Better Respects Protest Thanks to our Lawsuit

With a unanimous City Council vote and Mayor Jean Stothert’s signature, Omaha’s municipal code will now better protect the right to meet in public streets and parks to call for change.

With a unanimous City Council vote and Mayor Jean Stothert’s signature, Omaha’s municipal code will now better protect the right to meet in public streets and parks to call for government reform. The change is linked to our ProBLAC lawsuit, which ended successfully with a settlement agreement in January.

To understand just how important this is, we have to look back to the Omaha Police Department’s unconscionable mass arrest of people participating in a peaceful march along Farnam Street in the summer of 2020. Officers arrested 120 people, relying on an ordinance about obstructing public ways that would later be struck down by a judge as vague and overly broad. The judge’s decision affirmed our argument that the ordinance’s language restricted more protected free speech than necessary and created an undue risk of chilling participation in lawful expressive activity.

When our plaintiffs and city representatives agreed to participate in settlement negotiations, we knew a rework of that language should be part of the conversation. After three weeks of negotiation, which included local leaders meeting with a federal judge mediating the negotiations, the final agreement included revisions of the ordinances providing more protections for peaceful speech and protest, including language that mandates officers provide notice and reasonable time to comply before citing or arresting a citizen peacefully calling for change.

Even better, the revised ordinances protect spontaneous protests that occur in the street, even when traffic is obstructed, and regardless of whether the City has issued a permit. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly made it clear that if a protest is in response to a breaking news event, police can’t use a burdensome permit requirement to prevent people from taking to the streets so their voices can be heard.

As a recent blog post from our friends at ACLU National puts it: “History shows public streets and roads are as deeply intertwined with our First Amendment rights as the idea of protest itself. […] The Supreme Court has recognized that our right to protest in the streets is a time-honored and cherished right.”

We’re proud to be part of defending that time-honored right, and to have our work now enshrined in Omaha city code. It wouldn’t have happened without our courageous plaintiffs and dedicated Freedom Fund attorneys, who stepped up immediately after the mass arrest to represent those who were arrested. They have our team’s deep gratitude.

The work is not done because too often officials are all too ready to undermine our rights when they don’t agree with someone’s message. Supporters and all Nebraskans can rest assured we will steadfastly oppose all attempts to chill free speech at the local and state level, including a bill before the Nebraska Legislature this session. The U.S. Supreme Court has rightly called the First Amendment’s protections indispensable conditions of nearly every other freedom. They must be fiercely protected.

Our thanks to our Freedom Fund partners

Gene Summerlin
Husch Blackwell

Jessica Douglas
Schaefer Shapiro LLP

Allison Heimes
Carlson Burnett

Brent Bloom
Brent Bloom Law Offices

James Regan
Regan Law Offices

Caitlin Lovell
Johnson & Mock PC LLO

Michael Tasset
Johnson & Mock PC LLO

Joseph Howard
Dornan Law

Jim McGough
McGough Law PC LLO

David Tarrell
Berry Law 

Jeffrey Leuschen
Law Office of Jeffrey Leuschen

Robert Bartle
Bartle & Geier

Kyle Flentje
Wagner Meehan & Watson LLP

Liam Meehan
Wagner Meehan & Watson LLP

Kenny Jacobs
Alexander Law

Andrea McChesney
McChesney & Farrell