Criminal Justice

Judge Orders Prior Restraint of Political Speech

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A judge in Florida has moved beyond merely forbidding the act of jury nullification in his courtroom. He's also banning advocates from letting anyone know about it.

A court order signed this week prohibits the distribution of pamphlets or leaflets meant to influence jurors outside the Orange and Osceola courthouses.

The administrative order, signed by Chief Judge Belvin Perry on Monday, has sparked a fresh free-speech debate that could lead to legal challenges, questioning whether the order amounts to a "prior restraint" or a form of censorship.

The issue stems from representatives of the national nonprofit organization Fully Informed Jury Association distributing what they call jury "education" information outside the Orange County Courthouse.

The documents, aimed at sitting or potential jurors, advised that jury members may vote their conscience. The pamphlets also indicate members cannot be forced to obey a "juror's oath" and that individuals have the right to "hang" a jury if they do not agree with others on the panel…

That order says a "restriction upon expressive conduct and the dissemination of leaflets and other materials containing written information tending to influence summoned jurors as they enter the courthouse is necessary to serve the state's compelling interest in protecting the integrity of the jury system."

Perry's order notes that one judge in the Ninth Circuit covering Orange and Osceola determined that a jury panel had been "tampered with" after discovering members had the leaflets "containing information attempting to influence the jury."

Roger Roots, an attorney and member of FIJA's advisory board, said the nonprofit is actively seeking legal representation in Florida to see whether a challenge to Perry's order can or should be mounted.

"Chief Judge Perry's order is what is known as prior restraint — one of the most oppressive forms of censorship," Roots said in a statement sent to the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. "The fact that the courthouse is an important public building where one would expect people to be free to advocate and speak about matters of the public interest makes Judge Perry's order especially suspect."

MORE: Looks like Brian Doherty beat me to this one by several days.