A municipal judge in Youngstown, Ohio, has apparently decided that the First Amendment doesn’t apply in his courtroom; at least when it comes to attorneys and the buttons they wear.
Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich had attorney Andrea Burton taken into custody, charged with contempt of court because she refused to take off a Black Lives Matter pin. WKBN reports that Burton was sentenced to five days in jail, but is out pending an appeal of Milich’s ruling. She will be able to avoid jail as long as she doesn’t violate the judge’s order to not wear political pins in court. If she loses the appeal, she will have to serve the five days.
Milich says that his order has nothing to do with his opinion of Black Lives Matter or any other political group. He told WKBN,
A judge doesn’t support either side. A judge is objective and tries to make sure everyone has an opportunity to have a fair hearing, and it was a situation where it was just in violation of the law.
But does Milich’s “no pin” policy violate the First Amendment? That’s a good question. Apparently he believes that it does not. But, out of all the court rulings over the years involving the First Amendment, one of the most sacred of all types of speech protected by the Constitution is political speech.
The Youngstown chapter of the NAACP believes that Milich’s order may violate Burton’s civil rights. On Friday, George Freeman, Jr., president of the local chapter, issued a statement in which he asks whether if Freeman had been wearing a pin supporting veterans, an ethnic festival or the YWCA she would have been asked to remove it. That would probably depend on whether or not the judge considered any of those other messages to be “political.”
Another attorney, Kim Akins, observed,
No one wearing an American flag button, no one wearing a crucifix or a Star of David would be removed, so why this particular statement bothered him so much is bothersome.
Legal experts agree that judges have a great deal of flexibility over what they choose to permit in their courtrooms. And Milich explained that he sees a difference between the things Akin mentioned and Black Lives Matter:
There’s a difference between a flag, a pin from your church or the Eagles and having a pin that’s on a political issue.
Mike Brickner, an official with the Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he doesn’t know a lot about this case, but it appears that the judge may be in the right:
There have been cases in the past when people have been given contempt of court for refusing to comply with a judge’s order to remove an article of clothing that may have a message on it. Many times this has been done to retain the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
That is certainly understandable, but it isn’t clear whether that was the situation in this case or not. So really what this all boils down to is whether wearing a button that says simply “Black Lives Matter” is a political statement. At least one Ohio judge thinks that it is.
Here’s a report on what happened, via WKBN:
Featured image via screen capture