Government Defends Ban on Protests in Supreme Court Plaza

Image: Government Defends Ban on Protests in Supreme Court Plaza Pro-life demonstrators protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 41st annual March for Life on Jan. 22.

Monday, 17 Feb 2014 07:05 AM

By Elliot Jager

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The Justice Department is appealing a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell that held a 1949 statute forbidding political protests in the U.S. Supreme Court plaza as unconstitutional, The Washington Post reported.

Congress in 1949 decreed it "unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement."

Protests were barred for an entire city block around the court.

More recently, the Supreme Court in United States v. Grace, a 1983 case, allowed demonstrations on the public sidewalks around the court. Picketing and other demonstrations were barred only in the marble plaza in front of the court – and in the building itself.

Howell, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, said this ban too was unconstitutional, according to the Post.

In her decision, Howell said Maryland college student Harold Hodge should not have been arrested in January 2011 for standing in the Supreme Court plaza wearing a 3-by-2 foot sign that read, "The U.S. Gov. Allows Police to Illegally Murder and Brutalize African Americans And Hispanic People."

In her 68-page opinion handed down in June, Howell ruled: "It cannot possibly be consistent with the First Amendment for the government to so broadly prohibit expression in virtually any form in front of a courthouse, even the Supreme Court."

She wrote the ban was excessive and "could 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."

The government is appealing Howell's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery writes in his brief that, "It is well established that the government has a legitimate interest in limiting picketing or demonstrating near courthouses. Unlike other parts of government, courts do not make decisions by reference to public opinion."

Civil liberties attorneys say it is important to be able to protest in the plaza and on the steps of the Supreme Court because these spaces provide a symbolic setting for free speech, the Post reported.

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