Everyone who believes in democracy, free speech, and real justice should be appalled by the terrible precedent Gregory’s case is setting. In case you have not heard or are a little rusty on the details, Gregory was brutally arrested on Sunday, November 1, 2009 for peacefully recording a video of Sunsara Taylor making an announcement at, of all places, The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago (EHSC), located in Skokie, IL. This is a society that claims to represent tolerance and compassion. In the society’s own words:
“The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago is a democratic fellowship and spiritual home for those who seek a rational, compassionate philosophy of life without regard to belief or nonbelief in a supreme being.”
“Our commitment is to the worth and dignity of the individual and to treating each human being so as to bring out the best in her or him.”
Ms. Taylor is a well known lecturer, who has appeared numerous times on nationally publicized programs. She has also lectured many times in the Chicago area, including at the University of Chicago. Ms. Taylor is a champion for women’s rights and social justice and she is very much opposed to imperialist wars. And Gregory was Ms. Taylor’s local videographer.
The EHSC had invited Ms. Taylor to lecture on that Sunday and to give a workshop on Saturday, the day before. Her subject was Morality Without Gods. The events were publicized in the EHSC calendar, widely promoted by Ms. Taylor’s office, and expected to be very well attended. However, toward the end of October, a heated battle of wills broke out, as the president of the EHSC and one or two other members mounted a vigorous dis-invitation campaign that many have described as based on flagrant distortions of Ms. Taylor’s views and record. In the end, the Society’s program committee agreed to cancel her lecture on Sunday, but to maintain the scheduled Saturday workshop. Dis-inviting a speaker, especially on short notice is widely considered to be extremely poor form.
The Saturday workshop was an unqualified success by any reasonable standard. The meeting hall was so packed that people were sitting on window sills and Ms. Taylor received a standing ovation at the end of a lively open discussion, which she moderated very professionally. And throughout the workshop, Gregory was doing his job of documenting Ms. Taylor’s lecture – without anyone objecting and completely without incident.
At the workshop, Ms.Taylor explained why she could not, in good conscience, fail to return to the hall in the morning in order to make a very brief announcement, before the start of events. Ms. Taylor’s stated purpose was to object to the cancellation of her scheduled lecture, and to invite all those who came to hear her know that she would be speaking within minutes at a nearby alternate venue, the home of a member of the EHSC.
As you listen to her speaking, bear in mind that this gentle young woman, who was so well received by the crowd, had been sufficiently maligned by the EHSC president that he was able to justify moving the regular Sunday School to another location, for the safety of the children. If you were Ms. Taylor, wouldn’t you have felt justified in standing up for your professional record and in doing your best to minimize the inconvenience to all those who expected to hear you speak on Sunday? Of course you would.
During that Saturday afternoon and evening, the president of the EHSC apparently planned what some have characterized as a trap. A trap, which would have to snare a victim in order for the president’s actions not to appear wildly excessive, even paranoid. The Skokie Police department was called and advised that the Society was anticipating a potentially violent disturbance at their Sunday morning meeting, triggered by a communist, with extreme atheist beliefs, and her followers. The Skokie Police Department would be paid to have a plainclothes officer, who happened to be a Marine, present in the building, while additional officers waited nearby.
Sunday morning, both Gregory and Ms. Taylor were greeted by the EHSC president and EHSC greeters. No one said they were not welcome. All this was recorded by Gregory, who was filming openly. As members and visitors began filling the room, the music volume was unusually high. Before the announced starting time for the morning’s event, the Society president came over to where Ms. Taylor and Gregory were sitting and Gregory lifted his camera to record the interaction. At that point, the president smacked the lens of Gregory’s professional camera and gruffly stated, “I am going to ask you not to film in here, it’s private property sir.” Of course, it is also a meeting that is open to the public and other people are filming. Next, a burly man, walks forward and says something like, “Sir, can you step outside please.” He was difficult to understand. This man is not identifiable by his dress as a police officer and he does not identify himself or why he is making the request. Ms. Taylor asks Gregory to stop filming and he does, During this entire time, there was not one word about trespass and Gregory was silent.
Shortly thereafter, Ms. Taylor stood to make her announcement and the EHSC president ordered the police to prevent Gregory from recording her statement. The police grabbed Gregory; dragged him out of the lecture hall, tearing his clothes; beat him up in the EHSC lobby; handcuffed his hands behind his back; pepper sprayed him in the face; and arrested him! Gregory was not the only person filming at the EHSC that day, a fact that is confirmed by the existence of photos showing Gregory face down on the lobby floor with two police officers kneeling over him and being led out the front door in handcuffs.
Gregory is certain that nobody, neither the president nor the police, ever told him he was trespassing and had to leave. And no members of the general audience in what was a crowded space has ever reported having heard either make such a statement. Furthermore, even if someone representing the EHSC had told Gregory he was trespassing, an Illinois Supreme Court ruling makes it absolutely clear that Gregory should have been given a “reasonable opportunity to leave the premises.” (People v. Mims,1972) And remember, at the point of Gregory’s arrest, he and Ms. Taylor had been on the verge of leaving in order to lead people to her lecture at the alternate venue – which Gregory was going to videotape as Sunsara’s videographer.
Gregory was taken to the Skokie Police Station, where the police later stated that he refused care by the Skokie Fire Department. When he was scheduled for trial in Skokie Court and released on bond, his attorney took him to the NorthShore Hospital for treatment of his injuries. His hospital bill came to just under one thousand dollars, hardly insignificant!
Meanwhile, the EHSC president was letting it be known that had the police not been present, he could have been dead on the floor, or words to that effect. According to his version of events, Gregory cursed him and threatened to hit him with his professional video camera when he approached Ms. Taylor and told Gregory to stop filming. An ally of the president claimed to have been present and that he too was cursed and threatened.
The police incident report, which was apparently prepared about the time of Gregory’s arrest, was written by an officer who did not play a direct role in most of the melee and who relied on those accusing Gregory for what he presented as fact. This report bears virtually no relationship to actual events, describing the police officers as methodically reasonable and Gregory as completely out of control. Regarding the reasons for grabbing Gregory, the report indicated:
- • Ms. Taylor interrupted a lecture with her announcement and the EHSC president approached Koger and asked him to stop filming her, whereupon Mr.Koger said, “fuck you,” and the plainclothes police officer radioed for additional police assistance due to a disturbance at the location.
- • The president approached Mr. Koger again, this time with a plainclothes officer, and once again asked Mr. Koger to stop filming and that if he filmed anything else in the establishment, he would have him removed and arrested for criminal trespass.
- • The plainclothes officer claimed to witness these warnings. The officer then claimed he approached Gregory, identify himself as a police officer and told Gregory he was on private property and if he did not stop filming he would have to leave – at which point Gregory stopped recording.
All efforts at reasonable diplomacy failed and the EHSC refused to drop the charges. Guilty of having over reacted in the extreme, resulting in injury and arrest for no good reason, the EHSC and the Skokie Police apparently concluded that the only solution to their problem was to do everything possible to insure that Gregory was found guilty of criminal trespass and violent behavior.
Gregory’s case was assigned to Judge Marguerite A. Quinn in the Skokie Courthouse, home turf for the officers who arrested Gregory and where everybody seemed to know them personally. And Judge Quinn was on excellent terms with the State’s Attorneys, having been an Assistant Cook County States Attorney for 13 years. The proceedings quickly became bizarre. At a pretrial hearing, Judge Quinn essentially threatened Gregory’s attorney with disbarment, though his attorney had barely spoken a word. Why the threat? Because the prosecutor told Judge Quinn that the defense attorney’s name was mentioned on the website of Gregory’s support committee. There is nothing illegal, or unethical, about having a support committee or referencing an attorney’s name on such a website. But judges are extremely powerful in their courts and such threats could be expected to weaken an attorney’s zeal.
As the actual trial began, there was a surprising turn of events. Seemingly out of nowhere, there appeared an unimpeachable witness, prepared to testify in minute detail to what transpired at the EHSC immediately preceding Gregory’s brutal arrest. Who was this surprise witness? It was Gregory’s video camera and the recording it contained.
Suddenly, the State and its witnesses had a BIG problem! The recording, clearly showed that Gregory was never told he was trespassing or told to leave. Furthermore, it showed that he was simply filming and not doing anything disruptive. Stories changed and minutes before the trial started, the charges against Gregory were altered from criminal trespass, battery, and resisting arrest to criminal trespass, contact of an insulting or provoking nature, and resisting arrest. The president of the EHSC was now able to remember that he had not told Gregory to leave or that he was trespassing and all references to Gregory cursing the president vanished. The plainclothes officer’s memory also cleared and he recalled that after Gregory was asked to stop filming and had put his camera down, he “whispered” in Gregory’s ear that he was trespassing and had to leave. Gregory unequivocally states that the whisper never happened.
Of course, the original police report was critical to Gregory’s defense at this point in his trial; however, Judge Quinn refused to allow it into evidence for the jury’s consideration – what! How unfortunate for Gregory. Apparently, the officer who completed it was not on the list of witnesses and was unavailable, or something like that (arguments were made at a side bar and could not be heard and are not part of the court record) Of course, at this point reasonable people might have been likely to conclude that Gregory was not actually trespassing. So, the prosecution argued that recording a video without express permission from the owner of the venue was absolutely equivalent to criminal trespass under the law. They argued that if a property owner tells you not to do something and you do it, then you are trespassing. Really? Where is that written in statutes? In fact, during her closing argument, urging Gregory’s conviction, the State’s attorney actually said:
“What we’re saying is, if you go onto private property and you’re doing something, and the private property owner tells you not to do it, if you don’t stop, you’re going to be arrested for trespass, that’s what’s important. Even if they were eating a sandwich, it’s not the filming, defendant’s eating a sandwich – Sir, you can’t eat your sandwich in here; if you do it again, you’re going to be asked to leave. The moment he takes that sandwich back out, he becomes a trespasser.”
The prosecution went even further, claiming that it was irrelevant that Gregory and Ms. Taylor were essentially leaving when he was grabbed by the police. And despite vigorous objections by Gregory’s attorney, Judge Quinn permitted the prosecution to make these arguments to the jury as fact.
There were also the usual, and not so usual, shenanigans during the trial. Judge Quinn took great pains to express her gratitude to the jurors for serving and her concern for their comfort. She repeatedly threatened Gregory’s supporters with ejection should they focus their gaze on the jurors or be disruptive in any way; however, members of the EHSC were permitted to signal the jurors with thumbs-up and thumbs-down gestures from an open doorway that led from the court room to a conference room. When one of Gregory’s supporters alerted a bailiff to this highly inappropriate behavior, the bailiff threatened to eject Gregory’s supporter, but did nothing about the individuals signaling the jury. Needless to say, Gregory did not stand a chance and a bamboozled jury of his peers found him guilty.
At sentencing, Judge Quinn essentially ignored the testimony of Greg’s character witnesses, which included lawyers, clergy, professors, and business people. There were also scores of personal letters testifying to Gregory’s good character. Instead, she claimed that Gregory “chose a path of violence” and threatened the safety of all those present at the EHSC meeting – Whoa! Really? She sentenced him to 300 days in prison, nearly the maximum sentence possible for a misdemeanor. This despite the fact that there had been not one shred of evidence offered that his arrest was predicated on his violent behavior. Furthermore, Judge Quinn denied Gregory bond while he appealed his case and sentence, a process which can take a year or more in most cases – an extremely unusual action in a misdemeanor case. Judge Quinn and the State’s Attorney appeared to be intent on re-punishing Gregory for a crime he had committed 13 years previously, when he was a homeless kid and for which he served time. Since then, he has demonstrated an enviable strength of character; completely turning his life around, educating himself in prison, becoming a paralegal for a respected Chicago law firm, and dedicating himself to fighting for social justice. He has given lectures at schools and colleges. No wonder so many respected members of the community testified to his good character during the trial.
Judge Quinn put Gregory behind bars for nearly a year, because he was peacefully filming activities at a meeting that was open to the public, an activity that thousands of people do everyday in America.
When Gregory appealed his convictions and sentence, the prosecution responded by misrepresenting critical testimony. For example, they claimed that Gregory was told to leave the EHSC property by the Society’s president, in spite of the fact that the president had changed his story and testified in court, under oath, that he never told Gregory to leave. Appellate Judge Aurelia Pucinski, who wrote the order denying Gregory’s appeal, adopted the prosecution’s misrepresentations and faulty theories about the case in their entirety, and never addressed the serious legal questions raised in Greg’s appeal brief. Astoundingly, the Appellate Court also claimed that Greg’s video recording, which was shown several times during Greg’s trial, as “People’s Exhibit 1”, would not be considered as part of the appellate record – absolutely unbelievable and amazingly good luck for the EHSC and the Skokie Police Department:
“We, initially, observe that defendant has attached to his brief a disk purporting to be a recording made on the day in question at the EHSC center. Although reference is made to a recording in the record, it is well-settled that attachments to briefs that have not been made part of the record are not properly before this court and will not be considered… Since the disk at issue was only attached to the defendant’s brief and there is no indication that it was certified and made part of the record on appeal, it will not be considered.”
The Appellate Court simply eliminated critical evidence from the record by alleging that the defense was trying to shoehorn new evidence into the record on appeal that had not been shown to the jury. That would indeed be unacceptable but that is not the case here.
Now, Gregory’s attorney, Jed Stone, is planning to appeal the decision of the Appellate Court to the next higher court, the Illinois Supreme Court. Attorney Stone will argue that simply telling Gregory to “stop filming or leave” was a conditional order, leaving open a whole range of permissible actions on Greg’s part, and cannot be equated with notice of criminal trespass. Furthermore, he will argue that a person cannot be charged with criminal trespass unless, after receiving unambiguous notice, he is given reasonable time to depart the premises “If the police can arrest someone for trespass without notice and without giving the person ample opportunity to leave, it opens the door to criminalizing all manner of benign behavior. In this case, videotaping becomes a criminal offense.” Attorney Stone believes if the verdict against Gregory is allowed to stand, it will set a dangerous precedent. “A sponsor of an event that is advertised as free and open to the public will be able to select certain individuals, for whatever reason, and easily have them arrested and charged with criminal trespass,” says Stone. “Under this new interpretation of the law, millions of people in Illinois will be in danger of arrest and prosecution for doing nothing more dangerous than eating sandwiches or USING THEIR CELL PHONES TO TAKE PICTURES.”
Gregory reminds us that the power to document dissent and reveal the truth of events, which powerful people want hidden, is being celebrated world wide and changing the world for the better. He says, “My case is setting a precedent that poses a danger for anyone who attempts to document a public event on private property. If you pull out your cell phone , you can be arrested for criminal trespass.”
This chilling precedent must be overturned!
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