Conviction of Code Pink Protesters Raises Serious First Amendment Concerns
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON—The conviction of three Code Pink activists in a D.C. court this week for “disrupting” Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing raises serious concerns for free expression and the rights of protesters, PEN America said today.
The three were convicted in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday. The United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, who reports to Attorney General Sessions, led the prosecution and decided to pursue the charges.
One of the activists, Desiree Fairooz of Virginia, was convicted on two counts: disrupting a hearing of Congress and parading in a Capitol building. The former stemmed from her laughing when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) praised Attorney General Sessions’ record of “treating all Americans equally under the law” as the junior senator from Alabama.
The other two activists, Tighe Barry and Lenny Bianchi, were convicted only on the second count, parading in a Capitol building. Pretending to support Sessions’s nomination, they wore Ku Klux Klan uniforms and stood up before the confirmation hearing was gaveled to order.
“It is deeply disturbing that the Attorney General would pursue a year in jail against activists who were protesting his own confirmation,” said Gabe Rottman, PEN America’s Washington director. “Laws against protesting in Congress are already overbroad. This conviction shows that they are so broad that the Department of Justice can play favorites—it can go after its critics and help its friends.”
Under the First Amendment, forums that have not traditionally been open to public demonstrations and protests can be subject to certain restrictions on speech, but those restrictions may not discriminate based on the speaker’s point of view.
The three now face up to a year in jail. They had refused to accept a plea agreement and demanded a trial. At least three jurors who spoke to the Huffington Post after the trial noted that they felt they had no choice but to convict Fairooz because of the breadth of the D.C. law. The laugh itself, they said, was not enough to convict, but Fairooz’s demand to know why she was being removed from the hearing was disruptive enough for a conviction. Several jurors also publicly disagreed with the initial decision to remove Fairooz from the hearing for laughing.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
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