By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
You might think the Sonoma County courthouse steps would be one place you could exercise free speech rights.
And you would be wrong.
New rules from Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau forbid preaching, protests and proselytizing within a defined perimeter around the Hall of Justice that includes corridors, outside walkways and the steps.
The policy, adopted earlier this month, also contains a dress code, outlawing attire such as baggy pants, shorts and mini-skirts. And it prohibits activities like using a cellphone or chewing gum in a courtroom.
The punishment for violations? Up to $1,500.
Read the new policy here.
Chouteau said it was prompted by a need to minimize interruptions caused by noisy demonstrators and encourage people having their day in court to dress appropriately.
“The courthouse is designed for the business of providing justice,” Chouteau said Monday. “It’s not a free-speech forum.”
Free-speech advocates assailed Chouteau’s “expressive activity” order, calling it overly broad. Labor organizers criticized it as an attempt to silence public dissent during contract negotiations.
Occasional demonstrations have been held outside the courthouse over the years, and the new rules would ban a church group from some of its regular activities.
Peter Scheer of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition agreed the court has the power to prevent disruptions but said it cannot forbid peaceful demonstrations without specific justification. He pointed to a recent federal court ruling involving the arrest of a protester on the U.S. Supreme Court steps that was deemed unconstitutional.
“American courts are places where the public, historically, has had access to send a message to fellow citizens, send a message to public officials,” Scheer said. “The desire for pristine decorum and a Disney World-like ambience is not justification for censorship.”
But Chouteau said the policy was needed to prevent behavior that has interfered with court operations. It came about after two years of planning.
He denied the policy was an attempt to muzzle labor groups.
“It has nothing to do with any reaction to what (the unions) are doing or might do,” he said.
The policy, which is now posted around the courthouse, lays out forbidden activities. They include picketing, parading, soliciting donations and sales.
It also defines key terms such as walkway and perimeter. In general, so-called expressive activity cannot occur on any corridor or pathway leading from the public sidewalk to the courthouse. And it can’t happen within 25 feet of courtroom entrances.
“It would cover the steps,” he said.
Banned under the policy would be groups handing out religious materials and conducting group prayer in the hallways. Santa Rosa-based Victory Outreach Church, an evangelical group that dispatches volunteers to court Monday, Wednesday and Friday, would be barred from some of its activities, Chouteau said.
Pastor Jose Guadarrama did not return a call Monday seeking comment.
Proper attire is required to maintain the dignity and respect of the court, the policy said. Those without it will be asked to leave and return on another date. Pants can’t sag below the waist, exposing undergarments, and tops that expose the midriff are not permitted.
Clothing with predominant colors that could be interpreted as symbolizing gang association can’t be worn. Tattoos and symbols associated with gang activity can’t be displayed or must be covered.
“It may strike some as extremely conservative to restore dress codes of the 1940s,” Scheer said. “But the court has power to do most of that.”
Cellphones, including electronic mobile devices, pagers and alarms, must be turned off in court. If they make an audible noise, they can be confiscated. Recording and photographing in the courtroom is prohibited.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org