When a harangue is OK at the high court, and when it's not

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - You can harangue someone inside the nation's highest court, but only if you're a justice or a lawyer.

A federal appeals court last Friday ruled against five people prosecuted for protesting inside the court in 2015, upholding a law the demonstrators argued was unconstitutionally vague in prohibiting "loud" language, or making a "harangue" or "oration."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia used the 1992 movie "My Cousin Vinny" to explain why the law was clear, quoting a line from Judge Chamberlain Haller in the film.

"Don't talk to me sitting in that chair!" Haller, played by Fred Gwynne, tells lawyer Vinny Gambini, played by Joe Pesci. "When you're addressing this court, you'll rise and speak to me in a clear, intelligible voice."

Judge Janice Rogers Brown, writing for a three-judge panel, was making the point that the protesters' actions could be considered public speeches that disrupted court proceedings.

A federal judge ruled in 2015 that the words "harangue" and "oration" are too vague for people to understand, but said the word "loud" was clear enough. But the appeals court upheld the entire law, saying its intent is clear.

"The prohibitions surrounding 'harangue' and 'oration' demonstrate concern with disruptions of the Supreme Court's order and decorum," Brown wrote in last Friday's ruling.

The five demonstrators were seated in the courtroom with the general public on April 1, 2015. After the court began its session, they rose one by one to protest the court's campaign finance rulings.

The first said, "We rise to demand democracy. One person, one vote!" After police removed her from the courtroom, the others stood up to make statements, and one began singing. All were arrested and prosecuted. They also faced separate charges of obstructing the administration of justice.

A "harangue" is defined as a lengthy and aggressive speech, while "oration" is defined as a formal speech.

"That 'harangue' and 'oration' may not roll off the average person's tongue today does not alter their possession of a settled meaning around public speeches," Brown said.

Published: Tue, Mar 07, 2017