Federal judge strikes down law prohibiting demonstrations at Supreme Court

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] on Tuesday struck down [opinion, PDF] a law banning protests and demonstrations in the plaza of the US Supreme Court. Enacted in 1949, the law served to protect the grounds from vandalism but also prohibited processions, parades and the display of banners supporting a particular cause or party, with violators risking a fine and up to 60 days in prison. Judge Beryl Howell found the 64-year-old law "unreasonable, substantially overbroad and irreconcilable with the First Amendment." As written, the law [40 USC § 6135] applies and provides criminal sanctions to any group parading or assembling, from peaceful protesters to a "line of preschool students from federal agency daycare centers, holding hands with chaperones, parading on the plaza on their first field trip to the Supreme Court." Howell also rejected the government's argument that the law preserved the appearance of the court as a body unswayed by external influences, stating:

It is hard to imagine how tourists assembling on the plaza wearing t-shirts bearing their school's seal, for example, could possibly create the appearance of a judicial system vulnerable to outside pressure. While there may be a legitimate interest in protecting the decorum of the judiciary, the challenged statute is not a reasonable way to further that interest.
Howell's order will apply only to the plaza of the Supreme Court.

The case was brought to the by Harold Hodge and the Rutherford Institute [advocacy website], after Hodge was arrested in January 2011 for wearing a sign protesting the treatment of minorities by law enforcement. The Rutherford institute applauded Howell's decision, stating [press release] that the decision "throws a lifeline to the First Amendment at a time when government officials are doing their best to censor, silence and restrict free speech activities."

 

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