Law

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. At the Supreme Court today, the justices heard arguments in a case testing the rights of protesters in public areas, but not just in any public area, what if it's a state highway that happens to cut through a large military installation? As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, the justices were not in the mood for big constitutional questions.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Dennis Apel has been protesting at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for a decade. The first and only time he did anything other than voice his discontent with U.S. policy was in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq War, when he threw some of his own blood on the sign at the gate to the closed part of the base. He was convicted of a vandalism misdemeanor and the commander of Vandenberg formally barred him from the entirety of the installation. In 2010, he was convicted of violating that and subsequent orders by protesting in an area that had been designated for protests.

Now, Vandenberg is not what most people think of when they think of a military installation. Its 22 square miles include public schools, public access roads to beaches, stores that are open to the public, a train station, and most importantly, the installation is intersected by the Pacific Coast Highway. So part of the dispute in this case is whether, under federal law, the installation includes the closed and open parts of the base, or just the closed part of the base. About 200 yards from the fenced off and closed part is a painted green line. Just beyond that is a piece of land that has been designated by the base commander as a protest zone, and just beyond that is the public highway.

As Apel sees it, the base is very clear about where the line is between the public and closed areas of the base - it is the green line, and he didn't cross that line. Therefore he can't be prosecuted for violating the order barring him from the base.

DENNIS APEL: I didn't re-cross the green line. I stood with my companions on the public highway and held a sign saying what happens at the base is completely immoral.

TOTENBERG: That's not how the government sees things, however. As Assistant Solicitor General Benjamin Horwich told the justices today, it is not just the closed part of the base that is covered by the base commander's order barring Apel, all of it is covered, the public roads, everything. And the rules that apply to the general public don't apply to Apel.

Justice Sotomayor: Here, you had a green line to tell people which areas you considered the base, and he was outside the green line. Horwich replied that nothing is inviolate because this is a military installation. Thus, for instance, tomorrow, the commander is shutting down the public highway during a missile launch. When Justice Alito inquired why then there is a green line, Horwich replied that it is there to demarcate the easement lines where state and local governments have some authority and responsibility.

Countering that argument was Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UC Irvine, representing Apel. He opened by telling the justices that this case is indistinguishable from the court's 1972 decision declaring that a commander could not bar a person from distributing leaflets within a military base on a street that was open to the public. Justice Kennedy, normally a First Amendment champion, pounced. But that was a first amendment case, he said, and that's not this case. This case is only about the statute giving local government easements, and nothing in those easements diminishes the commander's authority. Answer: There are still constitutional limits to that authority. Yes, the commander can close the road for a launch, but he couldn't, for instance, bar African-Americans from that road.

Justice Scalia: You keep sliding into the first amendment issue. We're only interested in whether the statute applies. Replied Chemerinsky: The United States wants it both ways. They want the state to be responsible for maintaining the public road, enforcing the law on the road, to be liable for harms on the road, but they also claim the same control over that road that they have within the closed part of the base. Justice Scalia: They're entitled to have it both ways. It's their base.

Pressed by other justices, Chemerinsky said that the government is free to draw the green line wherever it chooses, but here, having done that, having created a public road and having designated a protest place, it could not exclude Mr. Apel from that area. A decision in the case is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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