Feds Fight to Define Protest at the Supreme Court

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on June 06, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Wordsmiths and language lovers will delight in a fight federal prosecutors continued last week, appealing a federal judge's ruling against them, which turns on two words. The prosecutors tried to charge five people who protested at the Supreme Court by singing and yelling during proceedings with haranguing or making an oration, but were denied. They are now trying again in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

In their appeal, federal prosecutors say that neither word -- oration or harangue -- is unconstitutionally vague and that the charges are valid. US District Court Judge Christopher Cooper disagreed when he denied them last year, reports the National Law Journal.


There are some things you cannot do in the Supreme Court. The protesters in question here were charged under a federal law that provides: "It is unlawful to discharge a firearm, firework or explosive, set fire to a combustible, make a harangue or oration, or utter loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds."

The five men and women charged challenged the "harangue or oration" aspect of the prosecutors' complaint against them, arguing that these terms were unconstitutionally vague. They did not challenge the charge of uttering loud language and, in his lower court decision, Judge Cooper did allow prosecutors to proceed on that charge, to the extent the protesters' alleged behavior disturbed the "normal operations of the Supreme Court."

Dictionary Definitions

In his decision, Judge Cooper wrote, "From leading dictionaries' entries on 'harangue' and 'oration,' the court discerns not an objective and neatly isolable core, but a multiplicity of meanings -- many inviting purely subjective reactions -- that it cannot referee in any neutral fashion." In other words, Cooper found the terms too vague and their meanings too malleable for a court to objectively rule on such charges.

But he did allow prosecutors to proceed on a charge that the protesters were loud, and it's interesting to note that there will be no difference in terms of consequences for the accused, whether prosecutors win or lose their appeal. According to the National Law Journal, the defendants, regardless of whether proceeded against on only one of the terms originally charged or all three, face up to sixty days in jail and a fine or both if ultimately convicted.


If you have been accused of a crime, don't delay. Meet with a criminal defense attorney. Many lawyers consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard