Pro­test­ers jailed for re­peated cases of dis­rup­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Five ac­tivists de­cided the best way to protest a ma­jor First Amend­ment Supreme Court case was with more First Amend­ment ac­tiv­ity, so they dis­rupted the jus­tices’ oral ar­gu­ments two years ago.

The jus­tice sys­tem struck back Mon­day when a fed­eral judge in Wash­ing­ton sen­tenced the ac­tivists to jail time. Four of them will serve a week­end be­hind bars, and the fifth, who has had a sub­se­quent run-in with the law, will have to serve two week­ends.

The sen­tences are lighter than the 10 days the gov­ern­ment wanted but stricter than what the ac­tivists re­quested: no more jail time.

Judge Christo­pher R. Cooper of the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Columbia said it was the third time in a year that ac­tivists af­fil­i­ated with lib­eral protest or­ga­ni­za­tion 99Rise had dis­rupted the jus­tices.

At­tor­neys for the ac­tivists urged Judge Cooper not to hand down pun­ish­ment, ar­gu­ing that there is “a thin line” be­tween the First Amend­ment and crim­i­nal be­hav­ior.

“They crossed it pretty well,” Judge Cooper re­sponded.

The ac­tivists, two women and three men who dubbed them­selves the “Supreme Court 5,” said they felt their protest was the only way to alert the coun­try to the threats posed by the Supreme Court’s 2014 de­ci­sion in McCutcheon v. FEC, which in­val­i­dated rules lim­it­ing the num­ber of can­di­dates to whom a sin­gle cam­paign donor can con­trib­ute in an elec­tion cy­cle.

“It is pre­cisely their re­spect for the rule of law that brought them where they are to­day,” said Jef­frey L. Light, an at­tor­ney for three of the ac­tivists.

The hear­ing be­gan more than 15 min­utes late be­cause two of Mr. Light’s clients didn’t show up on time. Mr. Light said the clients had been in the court­house cafe­te­ria with him but some­how didn’t make it into the court­room on time, forc­ing the judge to wait.

Judge Cooper did not ap­pear to pe­nal­ize them for tar­di­ness. He is­sued the same sen­tences as two oth­ers who were in the court­room on time.

“I re­al­ize this was not the crime of the cen­tury,” the judge said, though he added that the protest — at the be­gin­ning of a morn­ing ses­sion just be­fore lawyers were be­ing ad­mit­ted to the bar and be­fore the jus­tices heard oral ar­gu­ment in a bank­ruptcy case — did un­set­tle the high court.

Each of the five stood and de­manded “free, fair elec­tions” and pleaded for “one per­son, one vote.”

Four of the five ac­tivists ad­dressed the judge be­fore sen­tenc­ing. They said they be­lieved they had no choice but to dis­rupt the Supreme Court be­cause they felt sti­fled by the rules. They said protest­ing in a place where protests are il­le­gal was a way to draw at­ten­tion to their cause.

“My song in the Supreme Court was an at­tempt to pierce through the fog of big money,” said David Bron­stein.

Matthew Kres­ling, an­other of the ac­tivists, told Judge Cooper that they knew they would face stiff penal­ties even be­fore their demon­stra­tion.

“But I say this: Protest is not a dis­rup­tion of a fair and func­tional sys­tem, but rather a symp­tom of a sys­tem which is un­fair and dys­func­tional,” he said. “If protest is an an­noy­ance, it’s an an­noy­ance in the same sense that a fire alarm is.”

He said the ac­tivists felt trapped by laws that re­strict protests to cer­tain times and lo­ca­tions, giv­ing those in power the abil­ity to marginal­ize and ig­nore de­mands. That was par­tic­u­larly true for the Supreme Court, Mr. Kres­ling said.

“If the court is like a church, the jus­tices can too of­ten seem clois­tered,” he said. “We tapped on the wall of the clois­ter to warn them about a cri­sis of faith oc­cur­ring out­side, that, if ig­nored, is only pref­ace to more ur­gent bang­ing or even a breach.”

Judge Cooper said he ap­plauded the ac­tivists’ de­vo­tion to par­tic­i­pat­ing in civic life but said courts are a spe­cial fo­rum whose deco­rum needs to be re­spected.

“We are not here be­cause of your view­points,” he said be­fore sen­tenc­ing. “We are here for one rea­son and one rea­son only, and that is where, when and how you chose to ex­er­cise those view­points.”

The ac­tivists pleaded guilty ear­lier this year to charges of il­le­gal pick­et­ing and mak­ing ha­rangu­ing speeches on Supreme Court grounds. They could have faced more than a year in jail.

The gov­ern­ment sought a much lower penalty but de­manded that the pro­test­ers face at least some jail time.

“If there is not a mean­ing­ful de­pri­va­tion of lib­erty, then these de­fen­dants will not ab­sorb the mes­sage,” said Lisa N. Wal­ters, the gov­ern­ment’s at­tor­ney.

Judge Cooper agreed, say­ing those in­volved in two pre­vi­ous protests had been given pro­ba­tion, and that wasn’t enough of a de­ter­rent.

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