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USSA: Appeals court says protesters DO NOT have right to congregate in front of Supreme Court...

USSA: Appeals court says protesters DO NOT have right to congregate in front of Supreme Court...

by Robert Barnes, THE WASHINGTON POST

The Supreme Court is designated as the ultimate protector of constitutional rights, but the guarantee of protest and free speech ends on the steps to the plaza in front of the court’s grand marble temple, a unanimous federal appeals court panel ruled Friday.

Demonstrators are allowed on the sidewalk in front of the court but not any closer to the famous portico promising “Equal Justice Under Law,” three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided.

The fight over where protesters get to protest has been going on for years.

The appeals court judges upheld a 1949 law that forbids demonstrations on the grounds of the high court, on the premise that protests at the court’s doorstep might lead to the perception that the justices are swayed by vox populi rather than the dictates of the law.

“Allowing demonstrations directed at the Court, on the Court’s own front terrace, would tend to yield the opposite impression: that of a Court engaged with — and potentially vulnerable to — outside entreaties by the public,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan, who argued often before the court as a lawyer and is sometimes mentioned as a future ­Supreme Court justice.

On days when controversial cases are argued and decided, the 50-foot-wide sidewalks surrounding the court are filled with chanting, flag-waving, ­bullhorn-toting protesters of all stripes. The Supreme Court itself, in 1983, ruled that these sidewalks — on First Street NE, just across from the Capitol — are open for protests.

But demonstrators are not allowed any closer. The court in its 1983 decision did not address the protest restrictions on the court’s grounds, which include the 252-by-98-foot oval marble plaza, with its fountains, benches, flagpoles and steps leading to the court’s iconic, six-ton bronze doors.

Critics have found the no-speech zone around the Supreme Court ironic if not hypocritical. The current court considers itself a fierce protector of political speech, knocking down restrictions on corporate spending on elections, for instance. The justices also struck a Massachusetts law that limited speech around abortion clinics.

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