In Nieves v. Bartlett, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the context of a civil suit pursuant to Civil Rights Statute 42 U.S.C.§1983, that “probable cause to make an arrest defeats a claim that the arrest was in retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment.” The facts are as follows. “Respondent Russell Bartlett sued petitioners — Sergeant Nieves and Trooper Weight — alleging that they retaliated against him for his protected First Amendment speech by arresting him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.” “Bartlett was arrested police during ‘Arctic Man,’ a weeklong winter sports festival held in” Alaska and “known for both extreme sports and extreme alcohol consumption.” Officer Nieves was the first of the officers to encounter Bartlett. “Nieves was asking some partygoers to move their beer keg inside their RV…. According to Nieves, Bartlett began belligerently yelling to the RV owners that they should not speak with the police….Bartlett was highly intoxicated and yelled at Officer Nieves to leave…. Several minutes later, Bartlett saw Trooper Weight asking a minor whether he and his underage friends had been drinking.
According to Weight, Bartlett approached in an aggressive manner, stood between Weight and the teenager, and yelled with slurred speech that Weight should not speak with the minor. Weight claims that Bartlett then stepped very close to him in a combative way, so Weight pushed him back. Sergeant Nieves saw the confrontation and rushed over, arriving right after Weight pushed Bartlett. Nieves immediately initiated an arrest, and when Bartlett was slow to comply with his orders, the officers forced him to the ground.” Bartlett was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but the prosecution dismissed the charges. “Bartlett then sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. §1983, which provides a cause of action for state deprivations of federal rights…. He claimed that the officers violated his First Amendment rights by arresting him in retaliation for his speech. The protected speech, according to Bartlett, was his refusal to speak with Nieves earlier in the evening and his intervention in Weight’s discussion with the underage partygoer. The officers responded that they arrested Bartlett because he interfered with an investigation and initiated a physical confrontation with Weight. The Federal District Court granted summary judgment for the officers…. The Ninth Circuit disagreed” and the officers appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
In its decision affirming the grant of summary judgment for the officers, the Supreme Court
found that Bartlett’s “retaliatory arrest claim fails as a matter of law” “because there was
probable cause to arrest him.” The Court noted that “‘as a general matter the First Amendment prohibits government officials from subjecting an individual to retaliatory actions’ for engaging in protected speech. If an official takes adverse action against someone based on that forbidden motive, and ‘non-retaliatory grounds are in fact
insufficient to provoke the adverse consequences,’ the injured person may generally seek relief by bringing a First Amendment claim. …. To prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must
establish a ‘causal connection’ between the government defendant’s ‘retaliatory animus’ and the plaintiff’s ‘subsequent injury.’ It is not enough to show that an official acted
with a retaliatory motive and that the plaintiff was injured — the motive must cause the injury.
Specifically, it must be a ‘but-for’ cause, meaning that the adverse action against the plaintiff would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive.” “‘Establishing the
existence of probable cause will suggest that [an arrest] would have occurred even without a retaliatory motive.’” “In light of the foregoing,” the Court decided that “Bartlett’s
retaliation claim cannot survive summary judgment.” The reason is that because Bartlett’s allegedly belligerent behavior gave the officers probable cause to arrest him, this negated his argument that the officers acted solely in retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment rights.