A University of New Mexico senior arrested while protesting a conservative political speaker at the Albuquerque campus wants a judge to rule that flipping the middle finger at police is free speech protected by the state constitution.

Trenton Ward on Wednesday sued New Mexico State Police, claiming he was battered by officers during a protest against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who spoke during a raucous Jan. 27 event.

A political science student, Ward witnessed police officers “deploy tear gas and push an elderly man to the ground,” the court complaint says. Motivated by what he witnessed, the lawsuit says, Ward “wanted to convey to other students that they should not allow the disproportionate police presence on UNM’s campus to intimidate or chill their protest.”

So Ward walked along a “skirmish line” formed by officers wearing riot gear and flipped a middle finger at police, according to the complaint.

The complaint characterizes Ward’s gesture as “imprudent” but nevertheless constitutionally protected speech.

State police Officer Alejandro Romero did not take kindly to such expression, according to the complaint.

Romero stepped outside the police line and struck Ward in the back with a baton, the complaint says. When Ward lost his balance, Romero and other officers “struck him again, pushed him to the ground, and arrested him,” the suit alleges. Officers then zip-tied Ward’s hands and placed him in a transport van for at least seven hours before booking him into jail on a charge of assaulting a peace officer, according to the complaint.

A state district judge dismissed the criminal charge against Ward, who suffered bruises on his back from police striking him, the lawsuit says.

A state police spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Prepared by Albuquerque law firm Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward P.A., the complaint names as defendants the state police agency and two of its officers, Romero and Joel Gonzalez, as well as three unnamed officers.

The lawsuit asks for compensation for “past and future pain, suffering and mental anguish” on claims of assault and battery by the officers, as well as negligence on the part of three unnamed supervisors for failing to properly train officers in how to respond appropriately to “potentially offensive speech” at a campus protest.

Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

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