Protesting in a Courthouse

Hands up if you believe you have your free speech rights in a Courthouse. Those of you who rose your hands, you’re not correct.

Courthouses have routinely restricted the speech rights of spectators who arrive to watch court proceedings. So it is quite incredulous for a constitutional law attorney named James Whitehead to say this:

The right to protest is under attack. The government is attempting to squelch expression even in such public places as the plaza fronting the U.S. Supreme Court.

This quote is from an article describing how an 83 year-old woman was removed from a courthouse for wearing a t-shirt that says "Shut down Guantanamo".

Here’s the down and dirty: the Court has every right to restrict the activities of others within the courthouse, including manner of dress and manner of expression. All courthouses I’ve been to have done this, and there are several reasons for it, the most obvious of which is to maintain order and limit the potential for outside influence on any juror or witness to a trial.

Courthouses are about hearing controversies and cases. The right of the parties involved to have their side heard trumps your right to free speech. This means the Court has the right and, indeed, the responsibility to restrict the manner of dress of all persons who may enter a courthouse, and to direct the bailiffs and deputies to enforce that dress code, including removing persons who are found to have violated the dress code or, in the case of the 83 year-old woman, ignored the order of an officer to remain covered with a jacket.

And this has been upheld by appellate Courts and has been the rule for decades. Quoting an article on the matter written by Michael Crowell, UNC Chapel Hill School of Government:

Given the court’s inherent authority to maintain order and protect the fairness, dignity and integrity of the judicial process, it was held reasonable for the judge to bar a defendant from wearing a T-shirt with a political message. People v. Aleem, 149 P3d 765 (Colo 2007). The ban served to protect the right to a fair trial.

Rules of this nature are about protecting the rights of those who have business before the Court. Your rights take a back seat to that business when you are in the courthouse when that business is taking place and, as such, your rights can and will be legitimately restricted within that venue. This is not to say free speech is under attack, or whatever you want to say about it. It is, again, about respecting the rights of those who have business before the Court, who have cases and controversies to be heard, and the right to have those cases and controversies heard without undue influence on the trier of fact, including by people who will be sitting in the gallery.