ORLANDO – At age 79, Julian Heicklen — a resident of Teaneck, N.J. who recently came to Orlando — should be enjoying the tropical climate that draws so many retirees to Florida.
But he’s not. Instead, Heicklen is sitting in the Orange County jail, where he will stay for the next four months, after a judge found him guilty of contempt of court.
His crime: handing out political flyers to prospective jurors at the Orange County Courthouse last month. That was in violation of a judge’s administrative order that giving political material to jurors amounted to a form of jury tampering. Heicklen did it anyway, and now he’s got the rest of this year to spend in Orange County’s jail.
“He’s in for 145 days with no bond,” said Mark Schmidter, a friend of Heicklen who went to the jail on Saturday and talked to Heicklen by video visitation. Inmates are not allowed in person visitation at the jail. Instead they can communicate to people on the outside through a video monitor inside the jail, while friends or family speak into a video monitor at a station across the street from the jail.
Schmidter said Heicklen was in good spirits, despite the guilty verdict handed down by Judge Belvin Perry. In an interview with Freeline Media last month, Heicklen said he had expected to be found guilty of the two contempt charges, even though he planned to raise a number of free speech issues during his appearance before the judge.
Schmidter added that Heicklen had no complaints about how he was being treated at the jail.
“He’s doing fine,” Schmidter said. “He’s been treated right. He can’t say anything bad about it.”
Schmidter, a roofing contractor in Orlando, and Heicklen are both Libertarian activists, and got to know one another through their association with the Fully Informed Jurors Association, a Montana-based organization that believes the United States has too many unnecessary laws. FIJA advocates jury nullification, or encouraging jurors to acquit a defendant, even if the state has been able to prove their guilt, if they dislike the law that person is being charged with.
Schmidter began distributing FIJA’s flyers in front of the Orange County Courthouse exactly a year ago, but stopped when Perry, the chief judge of the Orange and Osceola County courts, issued an administrative order banning the practice. The judge also established a small “free speech zone” in front of the courthouse for future political activism, limiting the distribution of political material to pedestrians walking past the zone.
Heicklen heard about the order and felt it was a violation of Schmidter’s free speech rights, so he came to Orlando last March to defy the judge’s order. Both men handed out the flyers numerous times without being arrested, but that ended late in June when Schmidter was charged with violating the judge’s administrative order and for handing out the flyers outside the free speech zone. Judge Perry found him guilty of contempt of court, a third degree felony, and gave him 151 days in jail. He’s now out on bail, pending an appeal of the judge’s sentence.
Heicklen returned to Orlando last month, and he also got arrested. On Sept. 1, Judge Perry also found him guilty of contempt of court, and gave him the 145 day jail sentence.
Schmidter was he was stunned to learn the judge would give a nearly 80-year-old man such a lengthy jail term simply for distributing political flyers.
“How dangerous is someone like him to society?” Schmidter asked. “For 145 days – I think it’s absurd.”
Schmidter said he thinks the verdict says more about Perry’s ego than it does the law.
“The power has gone to his head,” he said.
Heicklen will appear before Judge Perry again on Monday, Sept. 12 to request that he get released on bail as he appeals the judge’s verdict – which is exactly what happened to Schmidter, who spent a week in the jail before getting released on a bond. Schmidter is now appealing the judge’s ruling, and expects it to take between a year and two years to work its way through the appeals courts.
“It’s going straight up to the Supreme Court,” Schmidter said.
He and Heicklen plan to work together to challenge the judge’s administrative order, and the free speech zone, as clear violations of the First Amendment.
“Julian and I are thinking of combining our resources,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any free speech zone, period. I don’t care if you’re the village idiot, you should be able to do that.”
In the meantime, Schmidter is trying to raise money for his appeals. He plans to attend the monthly meeting of the local chapter of Campaign for Liberty on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Legends Sports Bar & Grill at 1315 S. Orange Ave.
Campaign for Liberty is a Libertarian group whose goal, according to its web site, is to “promote and defend the great American principles of individual liberty, constitutional government, sound money, free markets, and a non-interventionist foreign policy, by means of educational and political activity.”
Schmidter plans to talk to the group about helping to raise funds for his and Heicklen’s appeals.
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