Jordan Kushner, crusading civil rights lawyer, on trial for filming police

Jordan Kushner

Jordan Kushner Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Jordan Kushner is used to getting arrested. As a civil rights attorney with a penchant for observing police tactics, it's a basic risk that comes with the gig. Over the years, he's been handcuffed and shoved into squad cars on four occasions. 

But this time seems different. 

In November, Kushner attended a lecture at the University of Minnesota. The speaker was Moshe Halbertal, an Israeli-born scholar who helped draft the Israeli military's ethics code, and was there to give a speech about "asymmetric warfare." A handful of people had come to protest the speech, deliberately hoping to make a scene, and get themselves dragged out. Kushner wasn't one of them.

But when the demonstrations started up, protesters rising one by one to heckle the speaker, Kushner fell back on his habits, pulling out his phone to film what was happening. When a cop approached a Muslim woman next to him and told her to get out, Kushner asked why he was singling out the only non-white person in the crowd.

Turns out Kushner was wrong: Moments later, that woman became the next heckler, and she, too, was removed by police.

Then a building manager came for Kushner, telling him he couldn't record the speech. The veteran attorney said he wasn't recording the speech — the speech was hardly going on, at that point, due to the numerous interruptions — but was documenting the actions of police. He knew his rights. No matter: Kushner was escorted out and "thrown over a little brick wall" by police, he recalls, a moment that was captured on building surveillance video. 

Cops don't like getting taped, Kushner has learned, and usually claim it "interferes" with their police work. But it's legal, and cities and states that have tried to outlaw it have had those laws thrown out as unconstitutional. 

"All of the cases I have reviewed made it clear, that there’s a constitutional right under the First Amendment," Kushner says. "But, they’ve got the guns, and badges, and they want total control of the situation they're in. They won’t allow questioning by anyone."

Kushner's previous arrests have been quickly dropped after someone reviews the evidence against him. Not this one. He's got a court date Friday, where he's facing criminal charges of disorderly conduct, obstruction of justice, and trespassing. Trespassing, for attending a free lecture in a building owned by a public university. 

Curiously, police have put in a lot of effort on Kushner's relatively minor case, filing multiple supporting evidence reports in the days and weeks that followed his arrest. 

"There's been a huge amount of investigation," Kushner said. "It's two months later, and they're still interviewing witnesses. They're treating it like it's a murder trial."

His only explanation? Cops and prosecutors know Kushner's reputation as a defender of civil liberties and free speech — even, or especially, free speech that makes authority a little uneasy. He's represented hundreds of protesters in court. Now it's his turn.