Media Contact

Rachel Fergus,

June 14, 2024

Matthew Locke engaged in peaceful protest on August 16, 2021. He was met with excessive and unnecessary force from law enforcement, which left him with lasting facial paralysis.

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Minnesota and pro bono partner Forsgren Fisher filed an amicus brief in Locke v. County of Hubbard, et al. The brief asks the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the District Court’s decision to dismiss Locke’s case against Hubbard County, Sheriff Cory Aukes, and Chief Deputy Sheriff Scott Parks.

In 2021, Matthew Locke was part of a group of protestors opposing the construction of the Enbridge pipeline in Hubbard County. Locke and two other individuals used "sleeping dragons" to attach themselves to an idle excavator at the pipeline construction site. These devices – made of PVC pipe, metal pipe, and other materials – require law enforcement to use power tools to extract the protestors from the site.

Before officers with extraction tools arrived, Aukes and Parks used pain compliance techniques on the protestors in an attempt to force them to release themselves from the sleeping dragon devices. The pain compliance techniques used included applying pressure to sensitive nerves in the neck and head. These techniques cause excruciating pain and can result in lasting physical damage. Locke was left with facial paralysis, known as "Bell's Palsy."

The disproportionate use of force by Aukes and Parks in response to Locke's protest was unnecessary. Locke was engaged in nonviolent political speech, was not suspected of a serious crime, was not threatening anyone, and was not fleeing nor resisting arrest.

Locke's case is about the Fourth Amendment's protection from excessive force by law enforcement. It is also about the long tradition of law enforcement officers using disproportionate force against protestors, and the threat that poses to American democracy.

"In the 233 years that have passed since the First Amendment was ratified, the Supreme Court has time and again upheld the rights of peaceful protestors, no matter the popularity of the opinions they espouse," the ACLU-MN said in its amicus brief.

Law enforcement officers have an interest in preventing protests from turning into riots and otherwise enforcing criminal laws. But they must do so in a manner that does not unduly suppress speech.

“Peaceful protestors should not be forced to weigh their First Amendment right to assemble and express their views against the risk of enduring significant injuries inflicted by law enforcement, like the facial paralysis inflicted upon Matthew Locke,” said ACLU-MN Staff Attorney Catherine Ahlin-Halverson. 

A decision upholding the District Court opinion thus has the potential to reverberate widely to other protests, and to chill future protestors from exercising their free speech rights. 

The ACLU of Minnesota is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that defends and promotes the rights of all Minnesotans through litigation, lobbying and community engagement.