Criminal Law - Federal

Is Picketing a Federal Crime?

Key Takeaways:

  • Protesting in front of a judge’s home with the intent to sway their decision can be a federal crime.
  • As long as you are not interfering with the administration of justice, a peaceful protest outside of a courthouse is protected under your First Amendment rights to free speech.
  • Violating federal protesting laws can result in a penalty of up to one year imprisonment and a fine.

In 2022, as the U.S. Supreme Court was considering a landmark challenge to abortion rights, more than 100 pro-choice protestors peacefully picketed outside the homes of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Even though the protesters assembled peacefully outside of the justices’ homes, their intent of influencing the judicial opinions sparked debate among many legal scholars about whether this peaceful protest was illegal or constitutionally protected free speech and assembly under the First Amendment.

This page provides information about protesting, picketing, and when these free speech activities are not protected under federal law. For more information about federal criminal defense strategies, talk to a federal criminal defense attorney for legal advice.

Can You Peacefully Protest Outside of a Courthouse?

While some legal scholars may still try to argue otherwise, the plain language of the federal law on picketing and parading doesn’t leave much grey area: Their actions likely were illegal.

Federal law makes it a gross misdemeanor and federal crime to “picket or parade” in or near a federal court building or in or near a residence of a judge, juror, witness, or other court officer “with the intent of influencing them.”

Does Your Right to Free Speech Allow You to Protest Outside of a Courthouse While Court Is in Session?

While you do have the First Amendment right to express your views and peacefully assemble, the government can still express narrow restrictions on where and when you can protest. You can likely protest in front of a courthouse on a public sidewalk as long as you don’t:

  • Have the intent to influence judges or court officers in the courthouse
  • Impede the administration of justice by blocking individuals, witnesses, jurors, law enforcement officers, or court officials from entering or conducting business

If you want to avoid arrest for a protest outside of a courthouse, you are likely safer conducting your assembly in a way that doesn’t block people from entering the courthouse or assembling at a park across the street.

In Louisiana v. Cox, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the criminal convictions of a revered civil rights demonstrator, B. Elton Cox, for disturbing the peace, obstruction of justice, and picketing in front of the courthouse. Cox appealed his convictions, arguing the law violated his right to assemble and free speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the criminal convictions and agreed that the statutes did violate his right to free speech and assembly under the Constitution. The court also ruled that witnesses for the prosecution testifying that “violence was about to erupt” without any true violent behavior or “fighting words” wasn’t enough evidence.

What Are the Penalties for Picketing Outside a Courthouse or a Judge’s Home?

As noted above, a peaceful assembly outside of a judge’s home with the intent to sway a judge’s opinion in a case is illegal and can be charged as a gross misdemeanor. Pelaties for a conviction can include:

  • Up to one year in federal prison
  • Fines

Before risking being arrested for protesting, consider discussing all your rights to due process with a criminal defense attorney. A criminal defense attorney can explain whether your right to free speech or assembly under the First Amendment can protect you. An attorney can also help you understand the best place to arrange your protest to avoid arrest or criminal charges.

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