In response to our editorial criticism of a new court order banning protests and group prayer near entrances to the Sonoma County courthouse, President Judge Rene Chouteau called on Tuesday and invited us to take a tour of the courthouse grounds with him.
Jim Sweeney, Staff Writer Paul Payne and I met him over there this morning.
He, along with Court Executive Officer José Guillén, walked the grounds with us, showing us where the new 25-foot ban would extend. On the north side of the courthouse, it prohibits demonstrations near where jurors enter the building. It leaves a substantial area of space for demonstrating in the courtyard between the courthouse and the jail, but the rules would prohibit any large group activities on the west side approach to the courtyard and entrances. It also would prohibit protests up to the steps on the south side of the Hall of Justice. The sidewalk area and a stretch of courtyard before the steps would still be available for public demonstrations.
“We are keeping the avenues of free expression open,” Chouteau said, but he noted he still feels strongly that “a court is not a free speech forum.”
Judge Ken Gnoss, who joined us in Chouteau’s chambers before the tour, emphasized that this was not Chouteau’s directive. He said this was a process that had been going on for two years and was reviewed and adopted by the court’s executive committee before Chouteau put his signature to it.
“Judge Chouteau did not come up with this on his own,” Gnoss said.
The rule change started out as a clothing policy that sheriff’s deputies had encouraged them to adopt. But they said it evolved into an order focused on protecting jurors from being unduly influenced by large groups of people.
Court officials say they’ve had cases where individuals were passing out fliers in an attempt to influence jurors. “That is a very serious issue for us,” Chouteau said. “It’s not just (jury) nullification” that’s concerning, he said. “It is also putting pressure on jurors to decide issues in a certain way.”
“We are hoping to get jurors away from that type of environment.”
He said the intent of the rules is to allow free speech but prevent activity that would impede judicial proceedings. “We are trying to draw a balanced line,” Chouteau said.
Guillen confirmed that the new rules were modeled after those adopted by courts in Los Angeles, which have withstood legal challenges.
The tour left me somewhat encouraged that the rules still leave a fair amount of space for public protests to occur within earshot of the courthouse. But I’m still left wondering why rules that set out to focus on inappropriate clothing had to end up infringing on historic venues of free speech.
The judges had legitimate concerns about jurors being hounded on break and the influence of gang members on judicial proceedings. But from what I can gather, none of them could point to a single problematic demonstration that warranted pushing protests 25 feet from any entrance.
On the positive side, Chouteau said he wanted to hear from the public and that the rules would be up for review – and possible tweaking – after six months, if not earlier. It seems reducing the court’s red zone from 25 feet to 10 feet would be a place to start the tweaking. At the least it would be a step in the right direction, by giving the public their courthouse steps back.
- Paul Gullixson