Protesters Win Acceess to Supreme Court Grounds

     (CN) – Siding with a college student who was arrested while protesting peacefully on the Supreme Court plaza, a federal judge struck down a law that makes it illegal to wear banners there.
     Harold Hodge Jr., a fulltime student at the College of Southern Maryland, said he visited the plaza in January 2011 to “raise public awareness about the adverse treatment of minorities by law enforcement.”
     Hodge stood about 100 feet from the court’s main entrance, wearing a sign measuring 3-feet long by 2-feet wide that read: “The U.S. Gov. Allows Police To Illegally Murder and Brutalize African Americans And Hispanic People.”
     A court officer warned Hodge three times and then arrested the young man for violating Section 6135 of 40 U.S.C., which prohibits citizens from parading, standing or moving in processions in the Supreme Court building or grounds, or displaying a flag, banner, or other device designed to draw public attention to a party, organization, or movement. Those two sections of the 1949 law are known as the assemblages and display clauses.
     Though D.C. prosecutors agreed to drop the charge against Hodge if he stayed away from the Supreme Court for six months, Hodge filed suit because he said Section 6135 was unconstitutional and deters him from returning to the plaza for additional picketing.
     Hodge had named a U.S. Supreme Court marshal and a U.S. attorney as defendants in their official capacities. They moved to dismiss or for summary judgment, but U.S. District Judge Beryl instead granted Hodge summary judgment.
     The 68-page ruling slams Section 6135 as unconstitutional and void under the First Amendment.
     Howell devotes about a third of the ruling to the statute’s history, noting “the D.C. courts have for decades affirmed convictions under the challenged statute but without delving deeper into constitutional analysis.”
     Finally getting to the heart of the matter, Howell concluded that the law is an unreasonable limitation on speech.
     Noting that the statute does not include an intent requirement, Howell said it covers both people assembling on the plaza for picketing and people assembling for “any other reason, and with no intention of picketing or exerting any influence on the Supreme Court.”
     “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,” Howell wrote. “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.”
     Both clauses of the statute are overbroad, according to the ruling.
     The assemblages clause could, for example, “apply to, and provide criminal penalties for, any group parading or assembling for any conceivable purpose, even, for example, the familiar 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 wrote.
     “Thus, the statute would apply to employees both assembling for lunch or protesting a labor practice or the menu in the Supreme Court cafeteria,” he added.
     As for the display clause, Howell noted that government counsel “essentially conceded at oral argument that the challenged statute would prohibit, for example, a group of tourists assembling on the Supreme Court plaza, who are all wearing t-shirts ‘in order to bring into public notice their particular organization, church group, whatever group it may be, [or] school group.'”
     In declining to adopt a limiting construction, Howell said he could not do so without “essentially rewriting the statute.”
     Quoting a D.C. Circuit decision that considered the statute in its same in 1981, Howell concluded by calling Section 6135 “repugnant to the First Amendment.”

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