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Judge bans preaching, protesting near Sonoma County courthouse

  • The exterior of the Sonoma County Courthouse in Santa Rosa in 2013. (PD FILE, 2013)

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.”

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