The First Amendment to our Constitution says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
OK. Congress can't restrict the right of Americans to speak freely, to protest government policies they dislike, to gather peacefully for a common purpose.
No, Congress can't do that, but the Supreme Court can. Or so it says.
For 60 years, people were prohibited from protesting in the Supreme Court Plaza, the large area leading to the steps into the court building itself -- although we doubt any justice uses those steps on a regular basis, if at all. The law also prevented displays of signs, flags and so on. So, school children visiting the building couldn't carry American flags.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell struck down the law, ruling that it is much too broad. She apparently has read the Constitution, and at least understands it.
She was ruling in the case of Harold Hodge Jr., who was arrested on the plaza two and a half years ago for wearing a sign protesting what he considers police mistreatment of blacks and Hispanics. You don't have to agree with him to accept that he has an American right to wear the sign outside our nation's highest court.
Judge Howell said the marshal of the court -- who oversees protection at the building -- "has the authority to prescribe necessary regulations to govern the plaza."
She probably didn't think that, two days after her ruling, the court marshal issued an order, with the approval of Chief Justice John Roberts, basically reinstating the old law as a new policy. So much for freedom of speech.
Protesting government policies and actions we don't like has a grand history in America, from the days of the Boston Tea Party, to veterans who gathered to demand their promised benefits, to African Americans and their supporters marching for the basic human rights promised by the Constitution, to women burning their bras for equality, to gay Americans united by the 1969 arrests at the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. As long as the protests are not violent, they are permitted by the Constitution. Certain reasonable restrictions as to place and time are understandable.
But surely protesting peacefully in front of our Supreme Court Building must not be restricted. After all, the court doesn't own the building. We, the taxpayers of America, do.
Over the years, the Editorial Board has talked to numerous candidates for Texas' two supreme courts, and has asked how much great public interest or publicity or protests in Austin affect their rulings. Every one of them has said not one bit. Of course they are aware of such publicity and see the protests, but they say they remove those influences from their mind when reaching a decision based on the law and not public sentiment.
That's as it should be. Our high-court justices are citizens of this country, as are the rest of us. They don't live or work in a vacuum. They should be able -- no, they must be able -- to put aside personal feelings and emotions when deciding cases. Some Americans might question whether than can or do so, but that's a political debate for another time.
Certainly, protests inside the court building shouldn't be allowed, nor should disruptive or violent protests outside the building.
But if anyone should uphold our First Amendment rights, it should be our own Supreme Court of the United States.