Dress codes in the courthouse
August 28, 2002
Circuit Judge William Fletcher probably didn’t know it, but his ruling this week on the “biker colors” case at the Carson City Courthouse was particularly timely because of a murder trial going on there.
In his ruling for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Fletcher said the courthouse’s rules on the type of clothing that can be worn inside – rules that weren’t written down before the first confrontation with some bikers — went too far in infringing on the public’s First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.
The rules banned clothing and “colors” that would be associated with bikers or gangs or other groups that might cause a disturbance in the courthouse.
At the time, a group of bikers had been arrested for trying to wear jackets with their insignias past the guards at the front door. We said then that the policy would have a hard time distinguishing between “disruptive” groups and their clothing, whether they be Oakland Raiders fans or Boy Scouts.
Judge Fletcher didn’t exactly follow our logic, but he did make the same point. The fear or apprehension of disturbance, he wrote, is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.
The point is easily illustrated this week with the opening of a trial in which a Native American man is accused of being among a group that beat a Latino man to death in a Carson City motel room.
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There have been racial overtones to the case from the start, and there have been protests outside the courthouse. Security is heightened. There is reason to worry any small disturbance could turn into a large one.
Inside the courtroom, Judge Michael Griffin has authority to set any rules of conduct he wishes. But throughout the rest of the building, it would be impossible and unconstitutional to try to enforce some kind of dress code that prohibits clothing that might be associated with Native Americans or Hispanics.
Just because it may be offensive to someone doesn’t mean it can be banned.
While we agree with the Judge Fletcher’s ruling, we still believe our advice more than a year ago holds true.
If you don’t want to draw trouble, don’t wear offensive clothing to the Carson City Courthouse. At the same time, there’s no reason for courthouse security guards to harass people for what they’re wearing as long as they’re not causing trouble.
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