In 2009, Edward Coffin was arrested on a public sidewalk outside of a Whole Foods in Philadelphia for handing out leaflets that promoted veganism.
In December, a complaint was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Coffin claiming that he was illegally arrested, and that the incident was not an “anamoly but rather part of a pattern by Philadelphia uniformed police of ignoring the First Amendment rights of protestors.”
According to the complaint, “After Coffin refused his request to leave, the store’s manager called the police. Responding to the call, Officer Dominick Cole told Coffin he was not allowed to leaflet in “a business district.” When Coffin informed the officer he was on a public sidewalk and allowed to leaflet, he was handcuffed and marched down the street in full public view to the police mini-station a block away.”
Coffin was then charged with leafleting without a permit under an ordinance that requires a permit for parades and assemblies, but that ordinance only applies to groups of 75 people or more. Instead of taking the issue to court, the city will pay Coffin $15,000.
“The money is appreciated, but my ultimate goal was to get better First Amendment training for Philadelphia police officers,” said Coffin. “I think I’ve made some progress, but it’s still a major problem.”
According to the ACLU, “police department management has failed to adequately train its officers about the right to leaflet without a permit or discipline officers who violate demonstrators’ rights.”
“I was wrongfully arrested for doing nothing more than partaking in First Amendment activity, protected by the Constitution,” said Coffin. “I fear that situations such as this definitely have a chilling effect on other activists, who might now think twice before engaging in lawful, peaceful activities.”
“The problem is not resolved by this settlement,” said Paul Messing, an attorney for the ACLU. “We will continue to talk to the city about necessary changes in Police Department procedures to ensure that fundamental First Amendment rights are being protected.”
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