Corey Kowalczyke is a freshman English major.
Last week in Las Vegas, a judge asked attorney Erika Ballou to remove her “Black Lives Matter” pin from her blouse. This incident follows a request from the Las Vegas Police Union to ban all materials related to Black Lives Matter from the courtroom. One may think this is an infringement on Erika Ballou’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression. However, this particular case highlights how there is often a very complicated relationship between freedom of expression and the right of the judiciary. After all, shouldn’t we as Americans enjoy the right to express ourselves freely in any situation?
According to the Eighth Judicial District Court of Nevada, “Each judge also has the obligation to ensure that his or her courtroom establishes an impartial forum where disputes are resolved through rule of law and the presentation of admissible evidence, free from extraneous influence.” Judges do have the right to make rules for their own courtroom to ensure proper decorum and impartiality, but how do they balance this without infringing on our First Amendment rights?
The problem starts with making rules universal. According to First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza, police officers are allowed to wear black bands around their badge to honor officers who have fallen in duty. However, Erika Ballou must remove her “Blacks Lives Matter” pin, which honors the African Americans who have fallen due to police brutality. Ballou is required to remove her pin on grounds that it represents something political, but who is to question the politicality of supporting human life? Ballou argues that her pin can be compared to that of breast cancer awareness, since both bring recognition to the value of human life.
A judge is supposed to remain impartial in the courtroom. In asking Ballou to remove her pin, the judge is imposing a form of bias. Moreover, the judge conceding to the request of the Las Vegas Police Union is an example of impartiality, since the courtroom is supposed to be free of outside influence. This incident comes during a critical period in our history regarding police and civilian relations. Many have a false notion that the Black Lives Matter movement is a threat to law enforcement; however, that thought is a reason why the movement is even in existence. Law enforcement has great authority in this country, with a government institution to defend them. A human rights movement, which purpose is to raise awareness, is not a threat.
Radical elements to a movement will always exist, but why discredit Black Lives Matter based on a few people who engage in violence, which the movement does not condone or encourage? Moreover, activists in Ferguson have launched a campaign called “Ground Zero,” which advocates for demilitarization of police and transparency through body cameras, which have been used in many major cities such as San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta, according to Vocativ, an online technology newspaper. To engage in violence would be contrary to the ideals that the Black Lives Matter movement fights for. During a time of decreasing trust in police, we need a movement that fights for the lives of those who are institutionally oppressed. Some unfortunately politicize Black Lives Matter, however the movements of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Gloria Steinem are not purely political, for they advocated for the acknowledgment of the value of human life, and not just partisan policies and laws.
The issue in this case is not about the pin, but something much larger. It raises the question of individuality in a judicial context. Moreover, it raises the question on how far we can go as a people, to have our First Amendment rights compromised by outside influences and differing opinions. We may not all agree, but that is what makes our democracy so fluid and diverse. However, something we should all agree on is that everyone should feel safe to express who they are in this country.
BLACK LIVES MATTER PHOTO BY GABE GRESCHLER