The silencing of a courtroom critic
By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center
Scott Huminski is what you might call a "citizen-reporter." Until a year ago, he was a constant and careful observer of court proceedings in Rutland, Vt., passing on to the public his thoughts about judges and their rulings. Huminski also is something of a "citizen-lawyer," from time to time filing his own legal pleadings with the courts.
Perhaps it was inevitable that these two avocations eventually would put Scott Huminski at the center of a legal issue of constitutional consequence.
Thanks to a few judges who don't suffer criticism gladly, Huminski is effectively silenced as a courthouse commentator and banned for life from all the courthouses and surrounding grounds in Vermont.
These affronts to Huminski's constitutional rights and First Amendment jurisprudence appear so flagrant to two Washington, D.C., lawyers that they have taken on his case free of charge.
As a citizen journalist, Scott Huminski chose a unique medium for communicating his opinions to the public: 45- by 54-inch placards put up at his home or on the side of his van parked in the courthouse parking lot. That was until the Rutland County District Court decided to come down on him hard.
Last May 24, Huminski parked in the courthouse parking lot, got out and taped three placards to his van. The headline on one of them read, "Judge Corsones: Butcher of the Constitution." Beneath that banner he listed five reasons he believed decisions handed down by Rutland District Court Judge Nancy Corsones were unconstitutional. The other two signs contained further observations about court proceedings.
Huminski was approached immediately by deputies and courthouse staff and told to remove the placards from the van or move the van off government property. Huminski explained that the information on the placards was protected expression under both the state and federal constitutions, an argument bolstered by the fact that the parking lot was rife with bumper stickers, vanity license plates and other signs bearing viewpoints of one sort or another.
Huminski then proceeded peacefully and politely to his "beat" in the courthouse.
A couple of hours later, a police officer and representatives of the sheriff's department escorted Huminski to a courthouse conference room and served him with two notices of trespass signed by Judge Corsones, the court clerk and the local sheriffs. One barred him from district court property. The other, strangely, barred him from the residential property of Judge Corsones.
There was more to come. Three days later, a far broader notice of trespass was issued under the signature of a different judge. That notice barred Huminski from every courthouse and surrounding grounds in the entire state of Vermont, apparently for the rest of his life.
It is hard to say exactly what provoked this extreme action by the Rutland judges. Huminski had not engaged in any disruptive behavior. He had not threatened anyone. He had not engaged in picketing. He had not uttered any obscene or vulgar language or "fighting words." He had not interfered in any way with the administration of justice.
All he had done was criticize public officials, a revered tradition in our democracy and fully protected by the First Amendment.
Acting on his own behalf, Huminski went to court to challenge the judges' orders but his efforts were rebuffed by a federal court judge.
Local media and civil liberties organizations apparently didn't take much notice of Huminski's case. Finally, after a search on the Internet, Huminski found and contacted constitutional lawyer Ronald K.L. Collins in the nation's capital. Collins in turn contacted First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C.
Corn-Revere took the case, and, with the help of Collins and a couple of associates at Hogan & Hartson, filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, on March 9. Attorneys at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression in Richmond, Va., filed an amicus brief on his behalf.
"I find the government's actions simply astonishing," Corn-Revere said. "I can think of no judicial authority to support it."
"Like many such cases," he continued, "the facts themselves may arise from a seemingly insignificant local situation, but they go to the heart of fundamental First Amendment principles. This case is about the right to criticize public officials, the right to speak in the vicinity of the courthouse, and the right to attend judicial proceedings all of which were thwarted by the arbitrary use of local power to silence speech. Government can be at its most oppressive at the local level if it is unchecked or unchallenged."
Collins is equally astonished.
"It's a sad commentary on our First Amendment freedoms when a case like this has to be litigated all the way to a federal court. This is not a complex case. This is a simple free-speech case where a citizen's First Amendment rights are abridged for no reason beyond his saying what he had every right to say."
If the judges who ordered or condoned Huminski's banishment from their sight thought they were protecting the dignity and authority of the legal system, they failed miserably. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black no doubt had this sort of judicial hubris in mind when he wrote in a 1941 decision involving criticism of a judge:
"The assumption that respect for the judiciary can be won by shielding judges from published criticism wrongly appraises the character of American public opinion. ... An enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench, would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt, much more than it would enhance respect."
Hopefully, all this and the legal briefs filed on Scott Huminski's behalf will nudge the Vermont judges into regaining their First Amendment footing. The free-speech and free-press rights of a citizen-reporter must be restored. But there is more at stake in this case than even Scott Huminski's rights.
As attorney Collins put it: "If a citizen critic can't speak without fear of arbitrary government action being directed against him, then the very idea of constitutional democracy is a farce."
Paul McMasters may be contacted at email@example.com.
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