The right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment is fundamental in our democracy. That's why the American Civil Liberties Union joined a wide array of community voices to express concerns about an order issued by Superior Court of Sonoma County in August limiting speech in and outside court buildings. We were delighted when the court suspended the order last week.
The court's order as originally drafted prohibited all kinds of speech, including passing out fliers within a 25-foot perimeter of the courthouse, even on public sidewalks. It also established fines of up to $1,500 and possible jail time for violating vague and overly broad rules about the clothing and appearance of anyone attending sessions.
In a letter to the court expressing our concerns, the ACLU explained that the order, as originally drafted, would have been damaging to core constitutional values — for protesters and others exercising their First Amendment rights, as well as anyone who had occasion to attend court sessions. It gave the court too much discretion to fine and punish court attendees for how they look and how they dress.
The text of the ACLU's letter is available at http://aclusonoma.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/9-6-13-ltr2-Chouteau.pdf
Last week, Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau invited a delegation from the ACLU to discuss the issues raised in our letter. I was pleased that Judge Chouteau took the ACLU's concerns and other community feedback seriously. He listened attentively to what four of us — Nancy Palandati, a Guerneville attorney and member of the board of ACLU of Sonoma County; Peter Kuykendall, a Santa Rosa attorney and board member; Linda Lye, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California; and myself — had to say. He led us on a tour of the courthouse and took the time to explain the court's goals of protecting juries from undue influence or intimidation and maintaining a neutral courtroom environment to promote fair and impartial justice.
The courts have important work to do every day, and we recognize the importance of preventing disruption to court operations. But it's equally important not to sacrifice core constitutional values. Courts are guardians of the Constitution. It would have been ironic if we were not able to exercise our constitutional rights on the courthouse steps.
I'm pleased that the court has now rescinded the order, preserving the public grounds outside the courthouse as a place where freedom of speech and expression is embraced.
Chouteau invited us to engage in a constructive dialogue about the importance of ensuring free speech and how that applies to the way the court conducts its business. We welcome that opportunity.
<i>Marty McReynolds, a Santa Rosa resident, is chairman of the Sonoma County chapter of the ACLU.</i>