Amid Occupy DC Protests, Case Challenges Law Blocking Supreme Court Rallies

 @DanRivoli
on October 26 2011 12:17 PM

As Occupy Wall Street-style protests organized in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court was a likely target for demonstrations. After all, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision unleashed unlimited amounts of corporate and union money into the political arena.

One recent protest at the Supreme Court resulted in 19 arrests, among them Princeton University professor and public intellectual Cornel West, who said that the demonstrators knew the relation between corporate greed and what goes on too often in the Supreme Court.

Now, a case brought by 34 protesters arrested in 2008 for protesting on the Supreme Court grounds aims to strike down the law prohibiting demonstrations.

Their lawyer, Mark L. Goldstone, filed a petition to the Supreme Court Tuesday that argues the law is too broad and stifles protected-speech.

The Supreme Court stands as the symbolic and substantive guarantor of this country's right to free expression enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, defending a breadth of rights unique in the world, the petition reads. [The law banning protests] impermissibly intrudes on those inalienable constitutional rights.

A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court declined to comment Wednesday.

One of the arrested protesters part of the case, Ellen Davidson, said in a statement that she was also at the Oct. 16 Occupy Wall Street-style demonstration against the Citizens United decision.

Corporations exert considerable influence over our political process and economic and social policies, and this is precisely why people-human beings, not corporations-need rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to express their views, she said in the statement.

The 34 protesters were among 80 arrested in January 2008 for demonstrating against Guantanamo Bay, a detention camp that in Cuba that holds people suspected of terrorism.

The protest moved from the public sidewalk onto the Supreme Court plaza. Court police told the protesters three times that they were breaking the law and that they would be arrested unless they moved.

In May, a Washington D.C. trial court judge found the protesters guilty, with some facing jail time or probation. A local appellate judge upheld the convictions.

Is Statute Prohibiting Demonstrations on Supreme Court Grounds Overbroad?

The Supreme Court petition argues that the statute on protesting on court grounds is unconstitutionally overbroad and arbitrary.

The Supreme Court police only arrested the [demonstrators] failing to enforce the statute against all of the other 'violators' on the grounds that day, the petition said, citing court public information office press conferences.

The petition cites Justice Thurgood Marshall's dissent in a 1983 case in which the high court held that demonstrations are constitutionally protected on public sidewalks around the court building.

[The statute] is plainly unconstitutional on its face, Marshall wrote. The statute is not a reasonable regulation of time, place and manner.... I would not leave visitors to this court subject to the continuing threat of imprisonment if they dare to exercise their First Amendment rights once inside the sidewalks.

The petition asks that if the Supreme Court finds the statute constitutional, the court should rule that, as an alternative, court police must inform protesters that demonstrating on the sidewalk is permitted, avoiding the need for arrests.

The advisement would be far less burdensome, the petition said, than the four-day criminal prosecution of demonstrators.

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