Now, that may change.
The decision comes in the case of a Maryland man, Harold Hodge, who was arrested in January 2011 for standing silently on the marble plaza while wearing a 3-by-2-foot sign around his neck.
The sign read: “The US Gov. Allows Police To Illegally Murder And Brutalize African Americans and Hispanic People.”
A member of the Supreme Court’s police force advised Mr. Hodge, who is African-American, that such protests were not allowed on the plaza. If he wanted to display his sign and make a political point he needed to move to the concrete sidewalk.
Hodge firmly but quietly refused. The officer delivered three warnings. He then placed Hodge in handcuffs and led him to a cell inside the Supreme Court building.
Hodge was charged with violating Section 6135 of the US Code. It reads in full: “It is unlawful to parade, stand, or move in procession or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.”
A federal prosecutor later dropped the charge against Hodge if he agreed to stay away from the Supreme Court for six months.
Hodge avoided the high court, and instead hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit at the federal courthouse. He said in the suit that he wanted to return to the Supreme Court plaza to engage in peaceful, non-disruptive political speech. He added that the challenged law had a deterrent and chilling effect on his desire to convey his political message.
Supreme Court officials defended the tough statute as a “reasonable limitation on speech” that advanced two significant government interests. It facilitated the unimpeded ingress and egress of visitors to the high court, they said.
Second, the restrictions preserved “the appearance of the Court as a body not swayed by external influence.”