FREE SPEECH ON TRIAL: Ban on Protests on Supreme Court Grounds Challenged

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”—First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)–October 25, 2011.  National Lawyers Guild attorney Mark Goldstone filed a petition for writ of certiorari at the Supreme Court today challenging a statute barring protests in the Supreme Court Building and on its grounds. Goldstone commented, “We seek to apply to the plaza and steps of the United States Supreme Court the same principle that the Court has applied to other public places.”

The Petition:

The petition was filed on behalf of 34 demonstrators convicted of violating a statute barring protests in the Supreme Court building and on its grounds. The case stemmed from a January 11, 2008, action organized by Witness Against Torture, a grassroots coalition of legal and human rights advocates. Organized as a “Day of Shame,” the action sought to draw attention to the plight of men tortured and held for the sixth year (at that time) at the detention camp for “enemy combatants” within the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Eighty participants in the 2008 demonstration were arrested and charged with parading, assembling and display of flags on Supreme Court grounds. This was part of a larger protest at the Supreme Court that day focusing on the denial of habeas corpus rights to mostly Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. facilities around the world.

The protesters carried no IDs, and when arrested, each gave the name of a prisoner in Guantánamo, marking the first time most of these men’s names were entered into the record in the U.S. judicial system. Thousands of prisoners are still being held without charge, many in solitary confinement, in Guantánamo and other U.S. military prisons, such as Bagram, around the world.

The defendants were convicted in the District of Columbia Superior Court of violating a law against demonstrating in the Supreme Court building or on its grounds. When their attorney-advisor Mark Goldstone’s appeal of their convictions was denied by a DC Court of Appeals in 2011, he moved to file the petition of writ of certiorari requesting that the Supreme Court review the case and re-establish the constitutional right of free speech within its halls and on its steps.

In a related development, four defendants in the January 2008 case, Maria Allwine, Ellen Davidson, Christine Gaunt, and Tarak Kauff, were arrested again at the Supreme Court October 16 under the same statute prohibiting protests at the court. This time, joined by Princeton Professor Cornel West and activists from the October 2011 occupation of Freedom Plaza, they were demonstrating against the court’s Citizens United decision awarding First Amendment freedom of speech rights to corporations.

Said convicted protester Ellen Davidson, “I was at the Supreme Court October 16 to protest the Citizens United decision giving corporations the same right to freedom of speech as people—the very same First Amendment rights we were not permitted to exercise on the steps of the court. 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.

“It is every person’s right and duty to raise his or her voice on the issues facing our country,” Davidson continued, “especially when our government is carrying out torture and imprisonment without trial. If we cannot legally express our views in a building paid for and maintained by our tax money that houses the very Supreme Court that is supposed to protect our constitutional rights, then the freedom of speech guarantees of the First Amendment are flimsy indeed.”

Petitioner Tarak Kauff affirmed, “It is not only the First Amendment that gives us free speech rights, but as human beings we have an inalienable right and an obligation to speak out against gross injustice, especially when the system that we live in is perpetrating that injustice. That the Supreme Court enforces a statute that prohibits free speech anywhere on the grounds of the Supreme Court of all places is intolerable.”

Witness Against Torture is now organizing for January 2012, when the illegal and immoral ordeal for the men who remain at Guantanamo (despite President Obama’s promise to close the facility) will reach its tenth shameful year. For more information on plans and to get involved, visit