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Should lawyers be allowed to wear Black Lives Matter pins in court?

Ohio attorney Andrea Burton was sentenced to five days in prison on contempt of court charges when she refused a judge's order that she remove the Black Lives Matter pin that she was wearing. 

Bryan Bennett/AP
A Black Lives Matter rally is held at Bronson Park on Friday, in Kalamazoo, Mich. In Ohio, an attorney was jailed for five days for refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter pin while in the courtroom.

Ohio attorney Andrea Burton was jailed for five days after refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter pin she was wearing in court. The incident has spurred a debate across the nation about whether the pin represented a constitutional right to freedom of expression or a political message that did not belong in the courtroom.

Ms. Burton had worn the small Black Lives Matter pin to court once previously with no problem, but on Friday the judge, Robert Milich, told her there had been complaints about her pin and asked her to remove it. She refused, and when she refused for the second time, she was taken away in handcuffs and sentenced to five days in jail, a jail she had previously only visited to meet with clients.

“A judge doesn’t support either side,” Judge Milich told the Youngstown Fox News station. “A judge is objective and tries to make sure everyone has an opportunity to have a fair hearing, and it was a situation where it was just in violation of the law.”

Judges do have the right to ask people in the courtroom to remove clothing with messages that may interfere with the defendant's right to a fair trial, and Milich’s argument was that there is a difference between an American flag or a church or sports related pin and one that makes a political statement.

“It’s not uncommon to have dress codes and other sorts of things. What you normally might find is a sign outside that says lawyers need to wear ties or no cutoffs or tank tops," Matt Mangino, a criminal defense attorney who used to be a prosecutor in Lawrence County, which borders the county where Burton was arrested, told The Washington Post.

“With regards to protests or political statements, things that can be controversial if they’re displayed in a courtroom, it may be akin to wearing a Hillary Clinton button in the court – anything that could disturb the court or disturb the decorum within a courtroom or lead to either the impression of bias,” Mangino continued.

However, Burton does not believe that her pin constituted a disruption. As a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, Burton says she frequently works with police and respects them. But as a black woman, she says she feels she has other obligations as well.  

"It's an act of civil disobedience, I understand that. I'm not anti-police, I work with law enforcement and I hold them in the highest regard, and just to say for the record, I do believe all lives matter. But at this point they don't all matter equally," Burton told Fox News.

Youngstown is about an hour outside Cleveland where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014 while he was playing with a toy gun. Tamir's death was one in an increasingly long line of high profile shootings of black men in the last two years that has spurred a national conversation about charges of systemic police racism and has also kickstarted the Black Lives Matter movement.

George Freeman Jr., president of the Youngstown branch of the NAACP, stated that Burton's civil rights may have been violated.

"Unless she violated the law – there does not seem to be a valid reason for her to be JAILED," Freeman wrote.

“I think that you can’t remain silent or you remain a party to oppression,” Burton told The Washington Post. “I am usually a pretty agreeable person. I’m always smiling. I’m polite. I have manners. But at some point it eats away at you how any time people see you talk about Black Lives Matter, then you’re being sensitive, you’re the person who’s racist.”

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