Supreme Court Rules Military May Bar Protesters From Public Events at Bases
The Supreme Court, limiting the rights of war protesters, ruled Monday that demonstrators may be prosecuted for peaceful protests at public events on military installations from which they had been barred.
In a 6-3 decision, the court held that the security needs on military bases must prevail in such instances over the right to free speech under the First Amendment.
“There is no generalized constitutional right to make political speeches or distribute leaflets on military bases, even if they are generally open to the public,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court.
The justices reinstated a conviction that had been overturned by a federal appeals court in San Francisco on the grounds that an “open house” staged at a military base had transformed it into a temporary “public forum.”
The case involved James V. Albertini of Hawaii, a protester who was convicted of conspiracy to damage government property after he entered Hickam Air Force Base in 1972 and destroyed secret documents by pouring animal blood on them. Afterward, Albertini received a “bar letter” from the base commander forbidding him to re-enter without permission.
In May, 1981, however, Albertini and four companions returned to the base during an Armed Forces Day open house featuring band concerts, carnival rides and military displays and attended by about 50,000 persons. Albertini and his companions passed out anti-war leaflets and gathered in front of a B-52 bomber display, unfurling a banner reading, “Carnival of Death.”
Albertini was charged, convicted and sentenced to three months in prison under a federal statute that makes it illegal to re-enter a military base after being barred. The protester, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, appealed, contending that he had the right to demonstrate peacefully on the base when it was open to the public as a means of exchanging ideas and information.
After the appeals court ruled for Albertini, the government brought the case to the Supreme Court, contending that the ruling could undermine the military’s ability to act against security threats.
O’Connor’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Byron R. White, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist.
Called Valid Method
The court said that “bar letters” were a valid way of preserving security at an open house, when the military could not monitor crowds closely. Excluding persons who have received such letters promotes “an important governmental interest,” assuring security during such gatherings, it said.
“Nothing in the First Amendment requires military commanders to wait until persons subject to valid bar order have entered a military base to see if they will conduct themselves properly during an open house,” O’Connor wrote.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, said the law had not been intended to punish persons who enter bases in response “to a general invitation to the public.”
Reprieve to Lawyer
In another decision, the court, by a vote of 8 to 0, granted a reprieve to a North Dakota lawyer who had been suspended from practicing in federal courts for writing a “disrespectful” letter to court administrators.
In 1983, Robert J. Snyder of Bismarck, N.D., wrote to protest the red tape that he and other lawyers encountered in obtaining payment from the court for representing indigent defendants. He refused a court request for further documentation of his time and expenses. “You can take it or leave it,” he said, adding that he was tired of going through “extreme gymnastics” for the “puny amounts” federal courts authorized for such work.
The letter was forwarded to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Chief Judge Donald P. Lay demanded an apology. Snyder refused--and was suspended for six months for what the judge called his “disrespectful remarks to the court.”
The Supreme Court, acknowledging that Snyder had been rude, said one such instance did not warrant suspension. Burger, writing for the court, said lawyers “may appropriately express criticism” of court administration.
Blackmun did not participate.