By Keyan Bliss
As activists and court observers anxiously awaited the controversial rulings regarding the Voting Rights Act and the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 this past June, the Supreme Court quietly issued a new regulation that prohibits demonstrations and protests on its federal property. The stated purpose is to "maintain suitable order and decorum within the Supreme Court building and grounds." But to activists upset with the Court's gutting of a key piece of civil rights legislation designed to enfranchise millions of voters, the regulation represents a naked attempt to bar any public dissent against the Court's decision from being visible to the tenured justices presiding within.
The new policy was established in response to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia declaring a law passed by Congress in 1949, which prohibited demonstrations on US Supreme Court grounds, to be "unconstitutional" in a case filed by the Rutherford Institute on behalf of Harold Hodge. Hodge was arrested in January 2011 for wearing a sign protesting the treatment of minorities by law enforcement. Judge Beryl L. Howell determined the law was "unreasonable, substantially overbroad and irreconcilable with the First Amendment
." This wasn't the first time this law was questioned, as the Court itself declared elements to be in violation of the First Amendment in United States v. Grace
in 1983. The Court nullified the law's ban on displays on public sidewalks around its building, but refused to declare the entire law unconstitutional.
The Court's decision to ban First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble and speak on its grounds is only one example of an unprecedented effort by the federal government to restrict public dissent of its policies, and it serves to highlight the ever-growing disconnect between themselves and the vast majority of the American public. Just two days after Occupy Wall Street's encampment in Zuccotti Park was violently dispersed by police, Congress unanimously passed the Federal Restricted Grounds and Improvement Act
to amend federal statute regarding protests on federal property by imposing criminal penalties on anyone who enters federal buildings or grounds without lawful authority. Now such grassroots protests can see their participants facing up to 10 years in prison for "willfully and knowingly" entering any restricted area or disrupting any government functions, regardless of their intent or the peaceful nature of such gatherings. And while the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new law would only apply to "a relatively small number of offenders," they also acknowledge it would "modify and expand current law regarding protests on certain federal property" to allow federal, state, and local authorities to prosecute cases they would otherwise be unable to do.
Even as our government tries to suppress the rights of ordinary people, it continues to defend and expand the rights and privileges of corporate businesses. Just this year the Court protected the Monsanto Corporation's patented seeds when they ruled in Bowman v. Monsanto Co.
that patent exhaustion does not permit farmers to reproduce those seeds through natural processes without their approval. The Court also protected Wal-Mart from a class-action lawsuit in Wal-Mart v. Dukes
by denying class-action status to over one million Wal-Mart employees who accused the big-box chain of gender discrimination in pay and promotion benefits, stating the plaintiffs did not have a "common claim" for which class-action status was justified. And who can forget the infamous ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
in 2010, where the Court established a new precedent by granting First Amendment rights to artificial entities such as corporations, nonprofit organizations, and unions.
With such a clear pattern of preferential treatment being displayed in the policy decisions of Congress and the judgments of the Court, it is hard to blame the people outraged by these events for wanting to publicly dissent against those making the decisions. The First Amendment guarantees the people the right to speak freely, peacefully assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances. It is a fundamental liberty necessary for the growth and improvement of any democratic system of governance. Somewhere along the way, the Supreme Court forgot this principle and discerned that artificial entities are more deserving of this right than real people.
If the American public cannot depend on the Court to objectively interpret the Constitution, the only solution is to amend the Constitution. The Move to Amend Coalition proposes the "We the People" Amendment to unequivocally state that corporations are not real people entitled to inherent Constitutional rights and that money is not a form of protected political speech, which was introduced in Congress as House Joint Resolution 29
earlier this year. Learn more and sign the petition at MovetoAmend.org
Keyan Bliss is a graduate of Indiana University, where he majored in political science. He is currently a field organizer and communications intern for the Move to Amend Coalition.
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