Appeals court: Supreme Court can ban protests on plaza

Mark Sherman and Sam Hananel
Associated Press

Washington — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Supreme Court can keep protesters off its marble plaza without violating their constitutional right to free speech.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that First Amendment rights stop at the sidewalk in front of the majestic courthouse and do not extend to the plaza.

The decision reversed a lower court ruling that declared unconstitutional a law prohibiting protests on the plaza.

Since 1983, the Supreme Court has interpreted the law to allow protests and other displays only on the public sidewalk surrounding the building. But that ruling did not directly consider demonstrations on the large marble plaza between the sidewalk and the court’s main entrance.

Among its reasons for upholding the restrictions, the unanimous three-judge panel said the government has a legitimate interest in dissuading the public from believing that picketing near the courthouse might sway the justices.

“A line must be drawn somewhere along the route from the street to the court’s front entrance. But where?” wrote Judge Sri Srinivasan, who has been mentioned as a potential high court nominee. “Among the options, it is fully reasonable for that line to be fixed at the point one leaves the concrete public sidewalk and enters the marble steps to the court’s plaza.”

The case stems from the 2011 arrest of Harold Hodge Jr., a student who was arrested on the Supreme Court plaza while wearing a sign that criticized police treatment of blacks and Hispanics.

Hodge sued and a federal judge found the law prohibiting access to the plaza to be too broad.

That law makes it a crime to “parade, stand or move in processions or assemblages,” or to display a “flag, banner or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization or movement,” at the high court’s building or grounds.

In her 2012 decision ruling in Hodge’s favor, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said the law was invalid because it was not limited to people who could be seen as trying to sway the Supreme Court’s decisions. She said it was so broad it could criminalize tourists wearing T-shirts with a school logo or preschool students parading on a field trip to the high court.

Two days after the 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court produced a new, narrower regulation banning demonstrations on the court’s grounds or in the building. The ban includes picketing, speech-making, marching, vigils or religious services “that involve the communication or expression of views or grievances, engaged in by one or more persons, the conduct of which is reasonably likely to draw a crowd or onlookers.”

The new regulation says “casual use by visitors or tourists” that isn’t likely to attract a crowd is not banned.

The plaza in front of the Supreme Court is an oval-shaped marble area with benches and fountains that is 252 feet long and 98 feet wide.

In its 1983 decision, the Supreme Court said the law regarding the Supreme Court grounds requires protests and other displays to take place on the public sidewalk surrounding the building. The public sidewalk is heavily trafficked, especially on days when major decisions are handed down. The plaza also is in use immediately after major case arguments — with parties and their lawyers providing their views to the news media.