Nov 15, 2:36 PM EST

Judge: St. Louis police can't spray chemicals on protesters

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ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that St. Louis police can't shut down non-violent protests or use chemical agents such as mace as a way to punish people who have been involved in weeks of demonstrations against police conduct.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry wrote that the order is needed to protect First Amendment rights during ongoing protests, which have continued for weeks following the September acquittal of a white former police officer in the 2011 killing of a black man.

Perry's order still gives police the ability to shut down protests, but she says that's only allowed if demonstrators pose "an imminent threat to use force or violence or violate a criminal law with force or violence."

The order stems from a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri against the city of St. Louis claiming that police have used heavy-handed tactics against protesters during those demonstrations. The preliminary injunction will be in effect as the lawsuit plays out in court.

"Evidence - both video and testimony - shows that officers have exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct," Perry wrote.

Perry also wrote that based on evidence and testimony so far, the ACLU appears likely to succeed in court.

The mayor's spokesman, Koran Addo, in a statement said the city appreciates "the time and effort of Judge Perry, and we will comply with the order of preliminary injunction."

Authorities have made more than 300 arrests at demonstrations over the Sept. 15 acquittal of former officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith following a high-speed chase.

In the lawsuit filed after about 120 people were arrested Sept. 17, the ACLU raised concerns about a police tactic known as "kettling," in which lines of officers move protesters into a limited area. The lawsuit also accused police of unnecessarily using of tear gas and pepper spray, arresting bystanders and journalists, and taunting some of those who were arrested.

"If St. Louis is to address its long-standing racial inequities, the community must be able to safely express its outrage and pain through nonviolent freedom of speech," ACLU of Missouri Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman said in a statement. "We must use this as an opportunity to develop a collaborative approach to policing between the community and law enforcement."

Police have defended their actions, saying protesters threw rocks and other items at officers, sprayed some with unknown substances and shattered shop windows.

She wrote that police can't end protests or use chemical agents such as mace or tear gas to punish people for exercising their right to free speech. The order says before using chemical agents, police need probable cause to arrest a person, must first give "clear and unambiguous warnings" and give people enough time to obey police commands.

The order also appears to address the "kettling" tactic. Perry wrote that police need to give protesters a way to leave if law enforcement decides to shut down a protest.

The ACLU of Missouri says a trial date has not yet been set.

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