Home » Where do first amendment rights go when you enter a courtroom?

Where do first amendment rights go when you enter a courtroom?

I’m not even talk­ing about the rights of defend­ents or plain­tiffs, but those of peo­ple who are oth­er­wise present in a court­room who aren’t being dis­rup­tive. How much con­trol do judges actu­ally need in order to main­tain order in the court­room? At what point are they sim­ply being petty tyrants?

I don’t have a prob­lem with judges insist­ing that peo­ple not use cell­phones or lis­ten to music. But when they start arrest­ing peo­ple in the court­room based on their cloth­ing, cloth­ing that is obvi­ously what these peo­ple wear on an every­day basis and not cho­sen to cause a prob­lem, that’s ridicu­lous.

Accord­ing to the Chicago Tri­bune, that’s exactly what hap­pened to 20-year-old Jen­nifer LaPenta of Round Lake (Illi­nois, I pre­sume) this past week. She wore a t-shirt to the gym to work out. After­wards (?), a friend asked LaPenta to drive the friend to the cour­t­house to pay some minor traf­fic tick­ets, so LaPenta did so. Shortly after the two sat down in the court­room, Lake County Assoc­iate Judge Helen Rozen­berg sum­moned LaPenta to the bench and asked her if she thought her t-shirt was appro­pri­ate attire. 

What was the hor­ri­bly offen­sive mes­sage on her shirt? “I have the pussy, so I make the rules.” 

LaPenta told the judge that she didn’t con­sider it offen­sive, but offered to change her shirt. Instead, the judge had the girl arrested and jailed for 48 hours for con­tempt of court.

Note that nobody said a word to the girl before she entered the court­room about her shirt. Every time I’ve ever entered a cour­t­house, there have been bailiffs or deputies or some such look­ing every­body over there, and then again at every entrance to the actual court­rooms. If the shirt was so offen­sive, why didn’t they say some­thing then? Why didn’t the judge sim­ply accept the girl’s offer to change her shirt, or allow her to leave the court­room?

I’ll give you that the shirt is tacky and taste­less. I wouldn’t wear it. I would hope that my daugh­ter would have too much class to wear it, and would have far more com­mon sense than to enter a court­room wear­ing it. If LaPenta had a lick of com­mon sense, she would have waited out­side the court­room, or changed into another shirt, rather than enter­ing any court­room in such attire. If nei­ther she nor her friend gave a moment’s thought to the mat­ter, I can only assume that they fre­quently wear such charm­ing state­ments on their per­sons. Still, they are well within their first amend­ment rights to do so, wherever they may be inside the United States, as far as I under­stand things. Except, it appears, inside court­rooms?

It should not be within any judge’s power to exer­cise their pow­ers in such a petty way. The shirt was tacky, but it did no actual harm to any­one. I find peo­ple who wear brown and gray together far more dis­tress­ing, but I’ve yet to see any­one sug­gest that it be a crim­i­nal offense. The judi­ciary is not empow­ered to enforce stan­dards of taste. I real­ize that this sit­u­a­tion is only one of the more ludi­crous exam­ples of judi­cial irre­spon­si­bil­ity, but the obvi­ous ones are low-hang­ing fruit.

Thanks to Dr. Marty Klein’s Sex­ual Intel­li­gence Newslet­ter for the lead to the news item.


  1. Um…


    How in hell was that con­tempt?

    (Now, I expect that a per­son who habit­u­ally wears such CHARMING shirts might have a less than gra­cious man­ner that could be con­strued as con­tempt…)

  2. cyn says:

    Exactly — the shirt is tacky, but she was will­ing to change it, so the con­tempt charge is just an abuse of power. Stu­pid­ity may be a crime against many nat­u­ral laws, but it isn’t the sort that Amer­i­can judges are elected or appointed to pun­ish.

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