A public defender was asked to leave a courtroom for wearing a Black Lives Matter button.
The union representing Las Vegas police officers wants to ban lawyers and other people from displaying buttons that say “Black Lives Matter” in court, arguing it’s “propaganda.”
Steve Grammas, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protection Association, asked Chief Judge David Barker of Nevada’s Eighth Judicial District to forbid Black Lives Matter pins and other messages.
“We have received complaints from our member officers who believe that such displays have no place in courtrooms in which justice is to be dispensed,” Grammas wrote in a letter last week. “We are certain that the courts would not allow similar public displays from citizens who believe that killers should be sentenced to death or that sexual predators should be castrated. While we embrace the First Amendment, we do not believe that such statements should be made in the halls of justice.”
Barker’s office didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.
The issue exploded Tuesday after Clark County Deputy Public Defender Erika Ballou wore a Black Lives Matter pin into District Judge Douglas Herndon’s courtroom.
A marshal told Ballou she would have to remove the pin or leave. Ballou left. Alzora Jackson, Clark County special public defender who went to court to support Ballou, said she borrowed Ballou’s button and wore it back into the courtroom.
“I don’t have one, but I wish I did,” Jackson said of the pin.
She, too, was confronted by the the marshal, who said Herndon had instructed him to ask people to remove Black Lives Matter badges or leave. Jackson said the marshal said he wasn’t told to arrest anyone who disobeys.
When Ballou returned to court for a case she was defending, Herndon told her the pin was inflammatory and inappropriate. He told Ballou her cases would have to be reassigned if she persisted in wearing the Black Lives Matter button.
In court, Herndon denied his ban was spurred by the police union letter. Rather, he said it was a general restriction on political speech in court.
Ballou told The Huffington Post she wore a Bernie Sanders pin every day for about eight months, often inside the courthouse, and never faced any issues. She said she had been wearing the Black Lives matter pin for about two months and hadn’t been confronted about it until Tuesday.
“I don’t think that this should be controversial. I believe that Black Lives Matter should be on the same line as breast cancer awareness,” Ballou said.
Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, who came to court to defend Ballou’s wearing of the pin, told HuffPost he believes the button is protected by the First Amendment.
“This is free speech,” Kohn said. “It’s very important and sometimes, unfortunately, some people will be offended by free speech, but that’s the price we pay for living in a free society. It’s critical.”
Kohn spoke up for Ballou by citing Cohen v. California, a 1971 Supreme Court case that found a Vietnam War protester had a right to wear a “Fuck the draft” jacket inside a courthouse.
Kohn agreed attorneys shouldn’t wear slogans in front of a jury. But Ballou was representing a client at a sentencing hearing on Tuesday and had a right to wear the Black Lives Matter button, he said.
Kohn also said he was “troubled” by the police union’s letter, especially the claim that the button is “propaganda.”
“It’s not propaganda, it’s not hateful, it’s not accusatory,” Kohn said. “The fact is you have another shooting this weekend in Tulsa and now we’re numb to it.” He was referencing the police killing of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Friday, which the Department of Justice is investigating.
“Maybe it is important that our lawyers draw attention to black people getting killed,” Kohn said. “Too many young black people are getting killed and our society has to be more aware of that.”
A hearing was scheduled for Thursday to further discuss wearing buttons in court.
This isn’t the first time a judge has viewed a lawyer’s Black Lives Matter pin in court as a violation. In July, a judge jailed an attorney in Ohio after she refused to remove her Black Lives Matter pin. That judge said he believed the button represented political speech.
Here’s the full text of the police union letter:
Dear Judge Barker:
As the Executive Director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, I am writing you concerning attorneys and other citizens who display “Black Lives Matter” propaganda in court.
We have received complaints from our member officers who believe that such displays have no place in courtrooms in which justice is to be dispensed. We are certain that the courts would not allow similar public displays from citizens who believe that killers should be sentenced to death or that sexual predators should be castrated. While we embrace the First Amendment, we do not believe that such statements should be made in the halls of justice.
While we appreciate that judges control their courtrooms, we urge you to consider directing such protestors to reserve their displays for public forums.
Very truly yours,
LAS VEGAS POLICE PROTECTIVE ASSOCIATION