Do a Google search for images of courthouse protests, and the result is a montage of U.S. history. From photos of civil rights protesters praying on courthouse steps in Selma, Ala. in 1965 to pictures of Occupy demonstrators blanketing New York's Foley Square in 2011 to shots of homeless people encamped in Santa Cruz, the courthouse steps of America have a revered place in our history of free expression.
But not in Sonoma County — at least not anymore.
Earlier this month, Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau handed down new rules that prohibit protests, preaching and proselytizing around the Hall of Justice — a perimeter that includes corridors, outside walkways and the courthouse steps. As Staff Writer Paul Payne reported Tuesday, violations carry a fine of up to $1,500.
"The courthouse is designed for the business of providing justice," Chouteau said. "It's not a free-speech forum."
But what Chouteau fails to explain is what protests have been so disruptive as to warrant such a sweeping crackdown on public expression and why it is that so many courthouses across the nation conduct their business without disruption even as their steps — and in many cases plazas — remain a podium of free speech.
The enactment of these rules leaves the public with the unsettling reality that banks can continue to sell their homes in foreclosure on the steps of the Hall of Justice, but if they seek to protest such action, they must remove themselves to the outer sidewalks or risk more consequences.
Peter Scheer of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition said it best: "The desire for pristine decorum and a Disney World-like ambience is not justification for censorship."
But not just free-speech advocates should be offended. Advocates of religious expression and other First Amendment freedoms also should bristle. The policy prohibits the distribution of religious material and group prayers, conducted quietly or otherwise. As reported, this would shut down the activities of Santa Rosa-based Victory Outreach Church, which has sponsored such prayers for years.
Making this all the more unsettling is that these rules were implemented without any attempt at getting public input, and there is no clear avenue for appeal.
At the same time, it's not hard to see where this originated. Courts in Los Angeles adopted a similar policy this year. And the U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down rules prohibiting protests on court grounds, including its plaza, which has been ground zero in many issue conflicts.
But the constitutionality of these policy changes remains unsettled. In June, a judge tossed out a version of the high court's rules. But the court quickly replaced them with scaled-down policies that also are expected to face legal challenges.
Either way, Sonoma County officials can hardly claim to be a hotbed of expressive activity compared to courts in Los Angeles and D.C. Local citizens don't use the courthouse steps every day. But they have known, as with fire extinguishers and 911 service, that they are there when and if the need arises.
At least they did, until this month, when their free speech rights were knocked back a few steps.