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

I’m not even talking about the rights of defendants 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 cell phones 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. Afterward (?), a friend asked LaPenta to drive the friend to the courthouse to pay for 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.

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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3 thoughts on “Where do first amendment rights go when you enter a courtroom?

  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…)

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  3. 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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