Splitting Hairs with the First Amendment

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues

Jury: West Point Didn’t Violate Free Speech
22 July 2009

5299USoutWhite Plains, N.Y. (AP) — West Point officials who ordered anti-war demonstrators out of an Army-Navy basketball game did not violate their First Amendment rights, a federal jury decided Wednesday.

The jury found that the protesters’ message — they wore T-shirts spelling out “U.S. out of Iraq” — was not the main reason for their expulsion.

The eight protesters, admittedly looking for attention, stood in the top row of the bleachers to display their message as the national anthem was played before a game in 2004. Building manager John Spisso ordered them to cover up the shirts or leave, and when they refused, they were escorted out by military police, held for three hours and charged with disorderly conduct.

The charges were dropped a month later, but the garrison commander, Col. Ann Horner, barred the protesters from West Point for five years. The protesters, all from nearby Westchester County, sued both officials, accusing them of violating their freedom of speech. Each protester sought at least $50,000 in damages.

At the trial in White Plains, government lawyers defended the West Point officials, saying they were simply enforcing what they thought were rules against demonstrations on campus and were not reacting specifically to the anti-war message.

Horner, now retired, testified that demonstrators wearing shirts that said “100 More Years in Iraq” could also have been banned.

However, Judge Stephen Robinson told jurors that civilian demonstrations were not prohibited at West Point until several months after the basketball game. He said the jury had to decide whether the officials acted against the protesters specifically because of their anti-war message.

Defense lawyer Michael Sussman pointed out that Horner’s directive banishing the protesters cited their “objectionable clothing.” In addition, a military police officer said the protesters were removed because Spisso didn’t like the T-shirts.

But the jurors, on their second day of deliberations, found against the plaintiffs.

Afterward, outside the courthouse, some of the plaintiffs and supporters re-enacted the 2004 protest outside the courthouse, again putting on white T-shirts that spelled out “U.S. out of Iraq.”

image: Syracuse Cultural Workers