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Free Speech Violation? Man Sues for Supreme Court Arrest

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 19, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Fitzgerald Scott is suing the federal government for judging his sartorial choices.

In January, Scott was sporting a jacket with the slogan "Occupy Everywhere" while looking at exhibitions in the U.S. Supreme Court's museum corridor. Scott claims that police officers asked him to remove the jacket, and told him that the jacket was "a sign, a demonstration" that he could not wear inside the court without being arrested for unlawful entry, Thomson Reuters News and Insight reports. When Scott said that he didn't understand, he was arrested.

Free speech rights, ironically, are restricted on Supreme Court grounds. Under the U.S. Code, a person may not "display a sign," "parade, stand, or move in processions," or "make a harangue or oration" in the Supreme Court grounds or building.

(A similar issue arose last year when 19 protesters, including Princeton professor Cornel West, were arrested for demonstrating on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. While the group was held overnight, prosecutors did not press charges in the matter.)

Prosecutors dismissed the charge against Scott, but he's still seeking damages from the government for the alleged free speech violation. Scott says that he should have been allowed to remain on the property, and that his jacket constituted "pure speech" under the First Amendment, Thomson Reuters reports.

There is, of course, Supreme Court precedent on free speech jackets. In 1971, the Court overturned Paul Robert Cohen's disturbing the peace conviction, holding that California could not penalize Cohen for wearing a "F*ck the Draft" jacket in a Los Angeles courthouse because the message on Cohen's jacket was protected speech.

The difference between the cases, however, is that Scott was not arrested for the content of his message; he was arrested because messages are not allowed in the Supreme Court grounds or building.

If the government decides to fight Scott, this has the potential turn into the rarest type of case: One that both begins and ends in the Supreme Court.

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