Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Florida Judge Orders "Prior Restraint" — one of the most oppressive forms of censorship

Judge's order bans jury pamphlets, sparking free-speech debate

Distribution of pamphlets or leaflets designed to influence jurors banned at Orange, Osceola courthouses

February 04, 2011|By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel
A court order signed this week prohibits the distribution of pamphlets or leaflets meant to influence jurors outside the Orange and Osceola courthouses.
The administrative order, signed by Chief Judge Belvin Perry on Monday, has sparked a fresh free-speech debate that could lead to legal challenges, questioning whether the order amounts to a "prior restraint" or a form of censorship.
The issue stems from representatives of the national nonprofit organization Fully Informed Jury Association distributing what they call jury "education" information outside the Orange County Courthouse.

The documents, aimed at sitting or potential jurors, advised that jury members may vote their conscience. The pamphlets also indicate members cannot be forced to obey a "juror's oath" and that individuals have the right to "hang" a jury if they do not agree with others on the panel.
Perry decided not to comment directly on the controversy, opting to let his order speak for itself.
That order says a "restriction upon expressive conduct and the dissemination of leaflets and other materials containing written information tending to influence summoned jurors as they enter the courthouse is necessary to serve the state's compelling interest in protecting the integrity of the jury system."
Perry's order notes that one judge in the Ninth Circuit covering Orange and Osceola determined that a jury panel had been "tampered with" after discovering members had the leaflets "containing information attempting to influence the jury."
Roger Roots, an attorney and member of FIJA's advisory board, said the nonprofit is actively seeking legal representation in Florida to see whether a challenge to Perry's order can or should be mounted.
"Chief Judge Perry's order is what is known as prior restraint — one of the most oppressive forms of censorship," Roots said in a statement sent to the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. "The fact that the courthouse is an important public building where one would expect people to be free to advocate and speak about matters of the public interest makes Judge Perry's order especially suspect."

Perry's order says people engaging in the conduct he described may be in violation of Florida Statutes involving jury tampering and obstruction of justice, and may be found in contempt of court and face fines, jail time or both. It says that if deputies find people on the courthouse grounds engaging in the distribution of information described, they are to provide a copy of the order and instruct the individuals to "cease and desist immediately."
A letter addressed to Perry, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi was posted on FIJA's website and sent to the Orlando Sentinel.
The letter, written by FIJA executive director Iloilo Marguerite Jones, cites a memo from another Florida judge allowing such handouts in a jury assembly room. Jones says "a contradiction of the law is evident" and asks for clarification. It also asks if impeachment proceedings against Perry will be instituted "or will you allow him to continue in his unlawful actions while serving as government representative of justice for the State of Florida?"

When asked directly during an interview if FIJA members would test Perry's order, Roots said he could not say for sure, but the organization advises people, "Don't get arrested."
He argued that the FIJA leaflets actually promote the integrity of the judicial system. "FIJA doesn't hand out any false information," he said. "It may hand out information that is contested."
In any case, Roots said the controversy in Orange may lead to a high-level legal challenge. While other FIJA members have been arrested in the past, Roots was not aware of another court order directed at the group's efforts.
"It might be a test case," he said. "Four years from now, that order may be argued before the Supreme Court."
Mark Schmidter, a 64-year-old local roofing contractor, said he had distributed FIJA materials outside the courthouse since September. Asked if he would be back again on Monday handing them out, he said: "Hell no! Mama didn't raise no fool."
If it comes to testing the case, an expert in civil disobedience will be brought in to defy the order, said Schmidter, a self-described Libertarian.
Asked how he felt about not being able to promote a cause he believes in, Schmidter said, "It feels great because now we can put on the front burner how bad this legal system is and how biased it is."
Anthony Colarossi can be reached at or 407-420-5447.

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