WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge partially invalidated a law that makes it illegal to use “loud” language or “harangue” people inside the U.S. Supreme Court building, finding the restriction unconstitutionally vague.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper stems from a criminal case against five protestors who were arrested after standing up during a Supreme Court proceeding in April to voice their displeasure with the justice’s ruling in the controversial case, Citizens United v. FEC.
The ruling extended First Amendment protections to corporations engaging in political expenditures.
The protestors were charged with demonstrating “near a building housing a court of the United States” with “the intent of interfering with, obstructing or impeding the administration of justice,” as well as with one count of “unlawfully mak[ing] a harangue or oration, or utter[ing] loud, threatening or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds,” according to an opinion announced Tuesday.
In a motion to dismiss filed in May, the protestors claimed the law’s mention of Supreme Court grounds restricted already protected speech in violation of the First Amendment and that the “harangue or oration” and “loud” clauses were unconstitutionally vague, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
After the government made it clear it did not mean to prove the protestors language was “threatening” or “abusive” or done on Supreme Court “grounds” rather than in the building itself, the defendants dropped the First Amendment claim, continuing their fight based on the law’s vagueness, the opinion says.
While Cooper agreed with the defendants that the “harangue or oration” clause is vague, he determined “loud” can be read narrowly enough to allow the government to go forward with its case.
The protestors arrived at the Supreme Court building April 1 to sit in on a session of oral arguments, though apparently not with the intention of staying for long. When the Supreme Court Marshal invited the audience members to sit down, Belinda Rodriguez, one of the five, stayed standing, Cooper’s opinion says.
“We rise to demand democracy,” She said according to the opinion, raising an arm in the air. “One person one vote!”
A police officer escorted her out of the courtroom, but Matthew Kresling allegedly stood to take her place.
“We rise to … Money is not speech,” he said before also being escorted from the building, according to the opinion.
That’s when Yasmina Mrabet allegedly stood up, raising an arm and shouting, “One person, one vote!”
“Justices, is it not your duty to protect our right to self-government?” She asked, according to the opinion. “Overturn Citizens United. One person one vote!”
After police escorted her from the room, Richard Saffle stood, according to the opinion.
“Justices, is it not your job to ensure free, fair elections?” he asked before he was shown the same treatment as the first three protestors, according to the opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts then warned the audience that the court would punish any further disturbances with criminal contempt.
In response, David Bronstein, the last defendant in the case, began to sing.
“We who believe in freedom shall not rest; we who believe in freedom shall not rest,” he sang, according to the opinion.
All , the outburst lasted “two to four minutes,” according to the opinion. The defendants first appeared in court on April 3, according to court records.
Cooper began his analysis of the statue by looking at the protestors’ claim that “loud” is an unconstitutionally vague term.
The protestors attacked this phrase in their motion to dismiss by wondering whether the law would apply to a schoolteacher shouting to try and give instructions to her children on a field trip or to a person in the Supreme Court cafeteria shouting to be heard over nearby construction.
While Cooper said the government’s clarification of the charges rendered this argument mostly beside the point, he agreed with the defendants’ general concern with the word. He compared the law to others courts have struck down in the past that prohibited “annoying” behavior, the transmission of “indecent” communications or the selling of items at “unjust or unreasonable rate[s].”
“Such amorphous standards transfer policymaking to police and juries with no plainly proscribed activity from which to analogize,” Cooper wrote. “A prohibition of ‘loud’ language at least requires some baseline level of noise, even if the proscribed decibel range is not marked ‘with consummate precision.'”
But Cooper acknowledged this wasn’t the end of the government’s case. He followed the Ninth Circuit’s lead in United States v. Agront in saying the government can prosecute certain speech, even with a word as vague as “loud,” if it defines the language as that which disturbs “normal operations of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“Such a construction is ‘fairly possible’ … and accords with Congress’s evident intent to preserve the order, decorum, and proper functioning of the nation’s highest Court,” Cooper wrote.
Because of this, the government can go forward with its second charge against the protestors as long as it tries to prove they were loud and disruptive, according to the opinion and Jeffrey Light, a Washington attorney who represents the defendants.
Cooper had no such reservations in finding the “harangue” and “oration” portions of the law invalid. The words rely on “subjective assessments” of the speech in question and harangue is an unfamiliar word the average citizen would have no reason to recognize, Cooper ruled.
“The Government has not cited any case law that might crystallize the words’ ambiguous meanings in the context of a legal venue like the Supreme Court,” Cooper wrote. “From leading dictionaries’ entries on ‘harangue’ and ‘oration,’ the Court discerns not an objective and neatly isolable core, but a multiplicity of meanings – many inviting purely subjective reactions -that it cannot referee in any neutral fashion.”
The trial of the five defendants is set to begin on Jan. 25.
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