Skip to content Site map

Program News

Alumnus Steve Patton: On First Amendment Rights and Public Safety

During his visit, Steve Patton discussed his experience balancing first amendment rights and public safety during the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago.

On Thursday, March 30, 2017 the IU College Luminaries Program had the pleasure of hosting alumnus, Mr. Steve Patton during their first One-Day Luminary event of the 2017 season. Over the course of his visit, Mr. Patton met with students, faculty, and administration with whom he discussed his career journey from IU student to senior legal advisor for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

Mr. Patton graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1975 with a B.A. in Political Science. Upon completion of his undergraduate degree, he went on to pursue his law degree at Georgetown University. He studied there for three years and then secured a job as a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, a position he maintained for 33 years.

By then Mr. Steve Patton had established himself as one of Chicago’s most elite lawyers, and in 2011 he was offered the opportunity to serve as Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s senior legal advisor. Mr. Patton accepted and maintained this position until February 2017.

One of his greatest achievements as senior legal advisor was his management of the 2012 NATO Summit hosted by President Obama at the McCormick Place in Chicago. This conference was the largest gathering of foreign leaders on U.S. soil, and public protests from civilians were expected. While Chicago was eager to host such a prestigious event, there was cause for concern. In 2003, the city faced major legal charges when demonstrations against the war in Iraq were mishandled by law enforcement, costing taxpayers millions of dollars and raising the question of how first amendment rights and public safety can coexist in the modern day. With this in mind, Mr. Patton set out to prepare protesters and the police force for a safe practice of free speech.

After studying the history of public protest management, Mr. Patton was able to implement many strategies to mitigate and eliminate potential violence, conflict, and lawsuits between protesters and the police. One of the most essential components to the plan was the weekly meetings with organizations that planned on protesting the day of the Summit. During these meetings, Mr. Patton collaborated with citizens on defining “free speech zones,” granting protest permits, and most importantly establishing direct lines of communication and trust between the city and its citizens. 

Mr. Steve Patton also concentrated his attention within the law enforcement division. Police donned soft attire rather than riot armor that automatically comes across as aggressive. By riding bicycles and performing what Mr. Patton called a "leap frog tactic," police were able to keep up with protest marches in an efficient and peaceful way. The marches were to keep moving to reduce the potential for citizens to feel trapped, and for the most part, they were allowed to walk where they pleased to avoid a “them versus us” mentality.

By taking these steps, Mr. Patton was able to maintain three days of protest without any property damage or major injuries, and his approach is still studied by lawyers across the country. Most importantly, he was successful in uniting citizens and law enforcement under a common goal – to grant the right to free speech in one of America’s biggest, most thriving cities.

Upon resigning from his post as senior legal advisor, Mr. Steve Patton is faced with a question that plagues most college students today – what to do now? While he has yet to answer that question, he has been successful in demonstrating and embodying each and every one of the College’s objectives: to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, and live ethically. His liberal arts education at Indiana University prepared him for the interdisciplinary work that his career demands, making him a superb example for all college students as they prepare to make the leap from student to professional.