CINCINNATI (CN) – A group of protesters removed from a country ham breakfast at the 2015 Kentucky State Fair challenged their arrests as unconstitutional before the Sixth Circuit on Thursday.
The annual event, sponsored by Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance, has attracted the interest of several protesters for a number of years.
Chris Hartman, Sonja DeVries and Carla Wallace, among others, issued a press release prior to the 2015 event through the Fairness Campaign, informing the State Fair that it would protest the breakfast.
The Fairness Campaign and its members objected to what they considered discriminatory policies espoused by Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance. They said the insurance company’s policies are anti-LGBT, anti-union, anti-teacher and pro-death penalty.
Kentucky State Police were instructed by the fair board to place the protesters inside a designated area near the entrance to the ham breakfast.
Although they opposed the event, Hartman, DeVries and Wallace were able to purchase tickets, and entered the facility wearing brightly colored T-shirts adorned with their group’s message.
Hartman and the others decided to stand silently at their tables during the first minute of the first speech at the breakfast, but within seconds of standing they “were seized by the arms, placed under arrest, and escorted from the venue,” according to court documents.
It remains a disputed question of fact as to whether the plaintiffs were told by state troopers to leave before being arrested.
The protesters filed suit against the troopers asserting First Amendment violations, but U.S. District Court Judge Greg Stivers in Louisville granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment.
Judge Stivers ruled in February that the troopers were entitled to qualified immunity because their removal of the protesters was supported by probable cause. Hartman, DeVries and Wallace appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Attorney Michael Goodwin argued on behalf of the protesters Wednesday, and told the panel that the breakfast is a “political event as much as a ham auction.”
Goodwin said his clients passed out leaflets and held signs, “similar to what other groups were using … outside the entrance,” but that they were the only group removed from the event.
“They were arrested,” the attorney said, “because of the content of their speech … and because they made [attendees of the breakfast] uncomfortable.”
Attorney Charles Haselwood represented the state troopers, and urged the Sixth Circuit panel to uphold the lower court’s decision.
U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore questioned Haselwood about the disputed fact regarding the officers’ instructions for the protesters to leave.
Specifically, Judge Moore asked if the district court erred when it granted summary judgment in light of such a dispute.
Haselwood said his clients were “exercising discretion in the totality of the circumstances,” and that the disputed fact cannot be analyzed in a vacuum.
The attorney pointed out that Hartman told one of his clients immediately prior to the event that he and his fellow protesters were “gonna ramp things up [this year].”
“Police officers can’t read minds,” he said.
Haselwood argued that, in light of all the circumstances, the officers clearly had probable cause to arrest the protesters before things got out of hand.
U.S. Circuit Judges Richard Suhrheinrich and John Bush also sat on the panel.
No timetable has been set for the court’s opinion.
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