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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.

3 comments

  1. Um…

    SHE WAS WILLING TO CHANGE HER SHIRT?

    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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