WASHINGTON: In a case that could end with the Supreme Court deciding how much free speech to allow on its own doorstep, a federal judge has thrown out a law barring processions and expressive banners on the Supreme Court grounds.
The law is so broad, the judge said, that it could criminalize preschool students parading on their first field trip to the high court.
Harold Hodge Jr. was arrested on the Supreme Court plaza in January 2011 while wearing a sign that criticized police treatment of blacks and Hispanics.
He claimed the law violates the Constitution, and U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell agreed. She ruled Tuesday that the statute ran afoul of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that challenged the law on Hodge’s behalf, said that ruling “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.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington said the office was reviewing the decision.
If the Obama administration appeals, the case could reach the Supreme Court, historically the guardian of free speech rights. That could create the ultimate not-in-my-backyard case, except it would be more about the court’s front yard.
In 2011, Hodge was on the Supreme Court plaza wearing a sign that said, “The U.S. Gov. Allows Police To Illegally Murder and Brutalize African Americans And Hispanic People.” After Hodge refused a Supreme Court police officer’s order to leave the plaza, he was arrested and given a citation for violating the law.
That law makes it a crime to “parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages,” or to display a “flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement,” at the high court’s building or grounds.
The charge eventually was dropped in a deal with prosecutors in which Hodge agreed to stay away from the Supreme Court grounds for six months. But after that period was up, Hodge decided he wanted to come back, and this time he was backed by lawyers.
Last year, Hodge sued and said he planned to return to the plaza and picket, hand out leaflets, sing, chant and make speeches.
In a 67-page opinion, Howell, an appointee of President Barack Obama, said that the law’s prohibitions on signs and processions were both overly broad. She wrote that the government “essentially conceded” during oral arguments that the ban on signs would prohibit a group of tourists assembling on the Supreme Court plaza, all wearing T-shirts to bring public notice to their organization — be it a church, school or other group.
The ban on processions, the judge wrote, “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.”