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Free speech outside Supreme Court: Ban on protests in plaza struck down

A 60-year-old statute barring all protest on the marble plaza outside the US Supreme Court is 'irreconcilable with the First Amendment,' a federal judge in Washington ruled.

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A federal prosecutor later dropped the charge against Hodge if he agreed to stay away from the Supreme Court for six months.

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Hodge avoided the high court, and instead hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit at the federal courthouse. He said in the suit that he wanted to return to the Supreme Court plaza to engage in peaceful, non-disruptive political speech. He added that the challenged law had a deterrent and chilling effect on his desire to convey his political message.

Supreme Court officials defended the tough statute as a “reasonable limitation on speech” that advanced two significant government interests. It facilitated the unimpeded ingress and egress of visitors to the high court, they said.

Second, the restrictions preserved “the appearance of the Court as a body not swayed by external influence.”

Judge Howell rejected both justifications. The interest in ease of access into and out of the high court does not justify the broad prohibitions on speech, she said.

“The statute encompasses not only a ban on activity that actually impedes ingress and egress,” she wrote, “but also bans a variety of other unobtrusive actions ranging from the assembling of groups of two or more individuals on a bench on one side of the plaza, an individual standing in one place holding a sign of limited size, or the display of political messages on a T-shirt by one individual or a group of individuals all wearing the same T-shirt.”

The judge added: “A broad prohibition of expressive activity of this nature is simply not reasonable.”

She also rejected the suggestion that the ban on protests was necessary to preserve the appearance of a Court not swayed by external influences.

“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,” she wrote.

Judge Howell declined an invitation to impose a more limited reading of the statute or attempt a judicial rewriting of the measure. She said she would leave “any future iterations of this overbroad statute to Congress rather than allow the statute to continue chilling speech.”

Hodge’s lawsuit was undertaken with the assistance of the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit civil rights group based in Charlottesville, Va.

John Whitehead, Rutherford’s president, praised the judge’s decision.

“Judge Howell’s frank, no-holds-barred ruling affirming the Supreme Court plaza as a free speech zone 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,” Mr. Whitehead said in a statement.


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