In this Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington, at sunset. (AP Photo | J. Scott Applewhite)

In this Oct. 10, 2017 file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington, at sunset. (AP Photo | J. Scott Applewhite)

Supreme Court rules against Alaska man in free speech case

The nation’s eye turns to Arctic Man.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against an Alaska resident in a case that gives law enforcement officers significant protection from people who want to sue and claim they were arrested in retaliation for something they said or wrote.

In an opinion, the justices said that because the officers had probable cause to arrest Russell Bartlett, his lawsuit fails.

Bartlett was arrested in 2014 at Arctic Man, an annual, weeklong winter sports festival that draws thousands to the remote Hoodoo Mountains near Paxton, Alaska. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts described the festival as “an event known for both extreme sports and extreme alcohol consumption.”

“The mainstays are high-speed ski and snowmobile races, bonfires, and parties,” he wrote, adding that for that week the “campground briefly becomes one of the largest and most raucous cities in Alaska.”

Bartlett was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after exchanging words with two troopers investigating underage drinking during the event. Officers said they arrested Bartlett, who had been drinking, because he initiated a physical confrontation by standing close to one of the troopers and speaking in a loud voice.

The charges against Bartlett were ultimately dismissed, but Bartlett sued claiming his arrest was retaliation for comments he made to the officers.

The court rejected Bartlett’s argument, ruling that when officers have probable cause for an arrest, the person who was arrested generally can’t sue and argue that their arrest was retaliation. Roberts wrote that if Bartlett’s arguments were to prevail “policing certain events like an unruly protest would pose overwhelming litigation risks.”

“Any inartful turn of phrase or perceived slight during a legitimate arrest could land an officer in years of litigation,” Roberts wrote.

The court did add one qualification to its ruling. The justices gave the example of a person who has been complaining about police conduct who is arrested for jaywalking, which rarely results in an arrest. The justices said in a case like that, if the person can prove that he was arrested when other jaywalkers had not been, he could move forward with a retaliatory arrest lawsuit.

One of Bartlett’s attorneys, Kerri Barsh, said she was disappointed with the outcome for her client. But she said she was pleased the court acknowledged there was at least a narrow category of cases where the fact that probable cause exists doesn’t close the door to lawsuits. “The facts mean a lot in these cases,” she said.

Bartlett had been supported by numerous First Amendment and media organizations, including The Associated Press. The case is Nieves v. Bartlett, 17-1174.


• This is an Associated Press report by Jessica Gresko.


More in News

Marine veteran Marvin Kadake, right, of the Keex’ Kwaan Dancers (People of Kake) shakes hands with Ed Kunz during the Grand Entrance for Celebration 2018 along Willoughby Avenue on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. The 2020 version of the every-other-year event had been tentatively scheduled for this summer, but those plans have been canceled, organizers announced. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Celebration 2021 canceled, organizers announce

It’s the second pandemic-related scheduling change for the event.

Sarah Palmer talks to a driver before administering a COVID-19 test in December 2020. On Tuesday, the City and Borough of Juneau reported an uptick in cases identified over the weekend that included Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  However, the community's COVID risk level remains at the moderate level, which was set last week after months with the community risk level set at high. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
COVID-19 cases tick up over holiday weekend

Two CBJ employees among those testing positive

President Joe Biden signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)
President signals plans to halt oil activity in Arctic refuge

The plans were announced on a fact sheet by the new administration on Biden’s inauguration day.

The author's fiancee Abby navigates their boat in the fading afternoon light. Shortly after returning to the dock, an otter took up residence aboard. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)
I Went To the Woods: Dealing with an otter squatter

I assume it’s an otter because of shell fragments in the runny excretions left in the forward stowage

Members of the Recall Dunleavy group are close to achieving their goal for signatures, with only about 20,000 signatures remaining as of Jan. 19, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file)
Recall Dunleavy group gathers steam for final push

The group has nearly reached its signature requirement.

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

White House, tribes joined to deliver Alaska Native vaccines

The initiative has treated Indigenous tribes as sovereign governments and set aside special vaccine shipments.

Has it always been a police car? (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read