BY Staff WritersFebruary 11, 2024
2 weeks ago

SCOTUS agrees to review qualified immunity case

Twenty years on, William Felkner's fight over his First Amendment rights reaches a critical junction.

Two decades after his academic career was hindered due to his personally-held views, Felkner stands at the cusp of a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court consideration regarding the qualified immunity granted to those who stood in his way. 

Felkner's academic journey at Rhode Island College took an unexpected turn twenty years ago when he was failed by faculty and staff in the school's social work department.

His transgression? Refusing to lobby for legislation that he opposed. This action, seemingly rooted in the protection of individual beliefs and freedom of speech, sparked a legal battle that stretches into the present.

The crux of Felkner's legal struggle lies in challenging the "qualified immunity" granted to the officials of Rhode Island College by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

This legal doctrine, which has protected public officials from lawsuits for actions performed within their official capacity, is under scrutiny. Felkner, represented by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, aims not only to overturn the decision in his specific case but also to challenge the 42-year precedent underpinning qualified immunity.

Revisiting a Four-Decade-Old Precedent

Qualified immunity serves as a shield for public officials, particularly in law enforcement, from being held liable for actions that do not violate "clearly established" law. This protection, however, has been a subject of debate and critique. The New Civil Liberties Alliance has critiqued the doctrine for its lack of a solid textual or historical foundation, highlighting its problematic nature in guiding judicial decision-making.

This doctrine's broad application has been evident in various cases, including that of Anthony Novak, who faced legal repercussions for creating a parody Facebook page about local police, only to be granted qualified immunity.

Such instances illustrate the expansive reach of qualified immunity beyond its original intent, enveloping a range of public officials and situations unrelated to law enforcement.

The issue of qualified immunity has attracted the attention of diverse legal and political figures. Notably, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has expressed his support for maintaining this protection for police officers, emphasizing its significance in law enforcement decision-making.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor have shown an openness to re-evaluating the doctrine, indicating a potential shift in judicial perspective.

A Legal Doctrine Under Fire

The New Civil Liberties Alliance has pointed out the unworkable nature of qualified immunity, forcing the Supreme Court to rectify lower courts' misapplications repeatedly.

This criticism is echoed by various organizations and legal foundations that argue that qualified immunity undermines judicial legitimacy, incentivizes ignorance of the law among public officials, and, crucially, shields potentially unjust actions.

At the heart of Felkner's case is the argument that the application of qualified immunity in academic settings, as defended by Rhode Island College, misinterprets Congress's intention. This misinterpretation, according to Felkner's legal team, not only affects his case but also has broader implications for constitutional rights and the accountability of public officials.

The Road to the Supreme Court

Felkner's Supreme Court petition has, so far, received minimal support in terms of friend-of-the-court briefs. However, the significance of his case extends beyond individual amicus briefs, touching on fundamental questions about the balance between protecting public officials and ensuring accountability.

In a related matter, the Institute for Justice's involvement in the case of Sylvia Gonzalez, in which she was arrested for "tampering with a government record" by Castle Hill, Texas officials, underscores another facet of immunity challenges. This case highlights the varied contexts in which qualified immunity applies, further emphasizing the need for scrutiny and revision of the doctrine.

As the high court's Feb. 16 conference approaches, the legal community and the broader public wait to see whether the Supreme Court will agree to reconsider the concept and application of qualified immunity. A decision to revisit this doctrine could have wide-ranging implications for public accountability and individual rights.

Written by: Staff Writers

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