On Feb. 26, 2014, Noah Kai Newkirk said a few words at the Supreme Court of the United States. The problem was that he was not supposed to be speaking; he was there as a spectator.
His words—a few brief sentences—also had nothing to do with the case being argued (concerning attorney fees in patent cases), but rather were a protest over the court’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. campaign finance case from 2010. Corporations, he observed, are not people and don’t have First Amendment rights. The marshals promptly ushered him out of the courtroom, and he was arrested and charged with a criminal offense in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
The next day he pleaded not guilty. Perhaps he will have a bit more to say at his upcoming trial. (He faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.)
It turns out that Newkirk was accompanied by confederates in the spectators’ section of the Supreme Court’s courtroom. At least one had a concealed video camera. The video soon appeared on the web. Other videotapes made as long ago as last year in the same courtroom also surfaced. Cameras are forbidden under the court’s rules.
This editorial is not about whether the justices ought to allow cameras in the courtroom—although one can speculate that Newkirk and his friends have probably set back that issue by years. Rather, this seems a good occasion to commend the authorities for sensibly handling a potentially touchy situation.
The incident ended peacefully. Observers—ourselves included—were offended by the affront to the court’s dignity, not to mention its security. There certainly seems to have been a slip-up in the fact that it proved possible for members of the public to smuggle some kind of video recorder into the courtroom despite the extensive security measures the marshals have had in place for years. The systemic flaw or human error will doubtless be fully investigated and steps taken to prevent a recurrence.
In the aftermath, the New York Times editorial page editor’s blog complained that “the court decided to pretend it never happened. The incident has been redacted from the official transcript of the oral argument, and snipped out of the audio that the court made available Friday morning. Voila! All is as silent and respectful as ever.”
It’s a fair point. Airbrushing the oral argument transcript and audio serves no purpose given the free availability of the secretly-made video. As for Newkirk, a District of Columbia jury will decide how he spends the next couple of months. His friends should park their cellphones at home this time.•