In recent months, city and state leaders have criticized the Police Department’s response to the protests that followed the murder of Mr. Floyd. A city report released in December found that the department “badly mishandled” those demonstrations. In January, the department was sued by New York’s attorney general, who has called for a monitor to oversee the police’s handling of protests.
Richard Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonprofit group that works to improve criminal justice practices, said Detective’s Cheung’s lawsuit spoke to the sense of political isolation that the police feel. He said it could represent a novel way of holding demonstrators accountable.
“Under the right circumstances, it might be an appropriate response to unnecessary harassment of a cop,” he said.
Lawyers who study civil liberties said that the suit could well have a chilling effect on speech and protests. Alexander A. Reinert, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said that Mr. Harper’s speech had been “reprehensible,” but added that even outrageous, hateful and discriminatory speech isn’t always actionable.
He pointed to a Supreme Court case from 2011 which found that hateful speech is protected if it involves what the court called “matters of public concern.” But he said that even if Mr. Harper were to use that or other defenses in court, or the detective’s lawsuit was otherwise unsuccessful, the suit could have a chilling effect on people’s speech at protests.
Remy Green, a New York-based civil rights lawyer, said that a new state law designed to make frivolous, speech-based suits harder to bring would quite likely apply to the detective’s lawsuit. The law could require Detective Cheung to pay Mr. Harper’s legal fees.
The police themselves, in New York and around the country, have long been granted broad protections from lawsuits under a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. But, at least in New York City, that may soon change. On Sunday, legislation passed by the New York City Council that would make it easier to sue officers became law.
A day later, Detective Cheung’s union posted a video on Twitter of another of its detectives being approached by a 25-year-old man and rapped on the head with a long, white stick. The man was charged by the police with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. The union said it was considering whether or not to sue.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.