Showdown at the South Jordan Big Top

By Noah Patterson

The Tenth Circuit refused to hold Salt Lake County employees liable under § 1983 for summoning police to a protest, even if the police improperly disbanded the protesters.

In Utah Animal Rights Coalition v. Salt Lake County, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah’s entry of summary judgment against a group of animal rights advocates.  371 F.3d 1248 (10th Cir. 2004).  The appellants consisted of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (‘UARC’) and five animal rights activists.  The protesters and UARC brought a § 1983 claim against various government authorities after police forced the protesters to stop demonstrating outside a circus in South Jordan, Utah.

After a circus employee made a complaint concerning the protesters, two Salt Lake County employees called the South Jordan police.  When the police officers arrived, they threatened arrest because the protesters did not have a permit.  The activists objected, emphasizing that they did not need a permit to spontaneously demonstrate.  The police officers disagreed, repeatedly explaining that the protesters could find the applicable city ordinance (requiring a permit for such a demonstration) on South Jordan’s website.  In response, the protesters pointed out that they did not have Internet access as they had not brought their computers to the circus.  After further threats of arrest and trespass charges, the protesters disbanded their act and left the circus premises.

UARC and the protesters brought a § 1983 claim against South Jordan City, the South Jordan police officers, Salt Lake County, and the county employees.  The plaintiffs settled with South Jordan City and the police officers, leaving Salt Lake County and the county employees as the remaining defendant-respondents (“Respondents”).  The Tenth Circuit determined that UARC did not have standing because UARC did not adequately define the injury it would suffer “if individual protestors [could not] hold small, spontaneous demonstrations.”  This left the five protesters as the only valid appellants.

The Tenth Circuit held that “[t]he undisputed facts demonstrate that the actions of [the county employees] did not infringe on the individual plaintiffs’ right to free speech or to peacefully assemble; rather, the protest was disbanded upon the arrest threats of South Jordan Police Officers.”  Additionally, the court emphasized that the case did not concern the application of a Salt Lake County ordinance because the protest occurred within South Jordan city limits (thus South Jordan laws applied).  As a result of these clear facts, the court of appeals decided that neither Salt Lake County nor the county employees directly caused the deprivation of the activists’ First Amendment rights and therefore the District Court correctly granted the Respondent’s motion for summary judgment.

To succeed, the activists needed to demonstrate that they were deprived of First Amendment rights and “that the deprivation was caused by a person acting under color of state law.”  While the court acknowledged that the county employees may have tangentially deprived the protesters’ First Amendment rights by calling the South Jordan police, the activists did not make this argument at the district court level. Since this indirect causation argument could not be made on appeal, the protesters needed to prove that the county employees directly caused the deprivation of their First Amendment rights.  The Tenth Circuit held that the activists were not able to prove this direct causation to the court’s satisfaction and affirmed the district court’s entry of summary judgment.