WASHINGTON, DC — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute presented oral arguments in federal court today in defense of a free speech lawsuit filed on behalf of a 45-year-old African-American man who was arrested for standing silently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building while wearing a sign expressing his concerns about police abuse and the government’s disparate treatment of African-Americans and Hispanics. The court appearance came in response to a motion by the government to dismiss the Institute’s lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of activist Harold Hodge in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a federal law that makes it unlawful to display any flag, banner or device designed to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement while on the grounds of the U.S. Supreme Court. In asking that the Marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia be enjoined from enforcing 40 U.S.C. § 6135, Rutherford Institute attorneys assert that the statute is vague, overbroad and invalid as applied to the kind of peaceful protest engaged in by Hodge.
“What we’re dealing with is a government that wants its citizenry to remain deaf, mute and blind—ignorant about the violations of their rights taking place daily and incapable of voicing their discontent,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Thankfully, we still have the First Amendment, which ensures that Americans can speak freely, assemble and petition their government for a redress of grievances. However, these freedoms are only relevant as long as people like Harold Hodge continue to exercise their rights and hold the government accountable when it attempts to undermine or do away with those rights.”
On January 28, 2011, Harold Hodge quietly and peacefully stood in the plaza area near the steps leading to the United States Supreme Court Building, wearing a 3’ X 2’ sign around his neck that proclaimed: “The U.S. Gov. Allows Police To Illegally Murder And Brutalize African Americans And Hispanic People.” The plaza is in all relevant respects like a public square or park, where citizens have by long-tradition been allowed to meet and express their views on matters of public interest and importance. However, a police officer informed Hodge that he was violating the law and issued him three warnings to leave the Supreme Court plaza. Hodge refused, was handcuffed and placed under arrest for violating 40 U.S.C. § 6135. Hodge was then taken to a holding cell within the Supreme Court building. Thereafter, he was transported to U.S. Capitol Police Headquarters where he was booked and given a citation. The charge was dismissed in September 2011 after Hodge complied with an agreement to stay away from the Supreme Court building and grounds for six months. In asking the U.S. District Court to declare 40 U.S.C. § 6135 unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in violation of the First Amendment, Rutherford Institute attorneys are seeking a declaration of Hodge’s First Amendment right to engage in peaceful, non-disruptive political speech on the plaza of the Supreme Court building.
Affiliate attorney Jeffrey L. Light is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Hodge.