Court's rules too restrictive

A free speech issue hit the U.S. Supreme Court in an unexpected way.

Demonstrators hawking their causes at the U.S. Supreme Court are about as common as rain in April, so this week's federal court decision striking down a ban on protesters at the court came out of nowhere.

The decision by U.S. Judge Beryl A. Howell serves as a timely reminder that unjustified restrictions on free expression are unacceptable, not just at the Supreme Court but especially at our nation's highest court.

Harold Hodge of Maryland was arrested in January 2011 for carrying a protest sign while standing in Supreme Court plaza. He had repeatedly ignored a police officer's warning that he would be arrested if he did not move from the court plaza, where federal law bars protesters, to the public sidewalk in front of the court, where protests are permitted.

Hodge ultimately was arrested, but the case against him was dismissed after he agreed to stay away from the court for six months.

When the Rutherford Institute, which handles free speech issues, offered to take Hodge's case, he challenged the law on which the arrest was based — a 1949 congressional statute that makes it illegal to protest on the court's grounds.

Free speech issues require a balancing act by all concerned. People are allowed to speak freely, but government also is allowed to impose reasonable regulations on time, place and manner. The Obama administration argued that barring protesters from the plaza was a reasonable restriction needed to facilitate the flow of people to and from the court as well as to promulgate the image of the court as being beyond the influence of public pressure.

Rutherford Institute lawyer John Whitehead acknowledged the importance of those concerns but contended they could be achieved under more limited rules. Judge Hodge agreed.

Given the free rein already allowed on public sidewalks in front of the high court, the Hodge decision is hardly groundbreaking.

But it's reassuring to know that even though the Supreme Court is this nation's highest court, it's not above the law that allows people the right to speak their piece.

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