ORLANDO – Speaking on his cell phone to an assistant for Circuit Court Judge Belvin Perry Jr., Mark Schmidter was perfectly clear about why he was calling.
“We would like to get arrested tomorrow,” he told the assistant. “So we’d like to have someone there tomorrow so we can be sure we get arrested.”
Actually, Schmidter doesn’t actually plan to end up in handcuffs.
“I can’t afford to get arrested,” he said. “Mama didn’t raise no fool.”
But he doesn’t need to. On Friday at noon, Schmidter will appear before the Orange County Courthouse with Libertarian activist Julian Heicklen of Pennsylvania. Heicklen is the one who truly hopes to get put in handcuffs.
“I’ve been charged with contempt before,” Heicklen said on Thursday as he distributed flyers at the Wall Street Cantina. “The name of the game is publicity.”
Heicklen plans to hand out flyers printed up by the organization FIJA, or the Fully Informed Jury Association. Based in Helena, Montana, FIJA encourages jurors to engage in jury nullification by voting to acquit anyone being prosecuted by a law they dislike.
To help promote this cause, Schmidter had been distributing FIJA’s flyers at the Orange County Courthouse between September and Jan. 31. On that day, an administrative order was issued by Perry, chief judge of the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, blocking anyone from distributing flyers from FIJA, on the grounds that it amounted to jury tampering.
When he heard about the judge’s order, Heicklen decided to travel to Florida to openly defy the judge’s order. Tomorrow, he plans to do just that.
“I intend to go to the courthouse,” Heicklen said, and exercise his free speech rights. Nothing he plans to do, Heicklen said, could in any way, shape or form be considered tampering with the rights of jurors.
“I never initiate a conversation,” he said. “I never ask who they are. I just hand out a pamphlet. If a dog comes by, I’ll hand it to them. I don’t force myself on them. I’m not going to urge them to do anything. I’m going to urge them to take a pamphlet.”
That kind of open defiance worries James Cox, a community organizer for FIJA. Cox, who is based in Fort Lauderdale, came to Orlando today to meet with Heicklen and explain why FIJA doesn’t support efforts to violate the judge’s order.
“I don’t condone, and neither does FIJA, Julian’s behavior, breaking this order,” Cox said. “I’m just here, basically, because Julian has a choice when he goes to the court and starts passing things out. When the police ask him to leave, he has the option to leave. He’s a human rights activist. He’s not with FIJA. He just chooses to use the FIJA materials.”
Cox said he’s worried that if Heicklen gets arrested, other FIJA volunteers will be reluctant to distribute the flyers to prospective jurors if they come to believe they could also get arrested for doing so.
“Fear gets the better of people, and discourages people,” Cox said. “It’s a problem.”
He also noted that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging the judge’s administrative order, and said the court system could deal with it, not protesters.
“We want to fight the judge in court,” Cox said.
But Schmidter countered that “Julian’s contention is this thing could just languish in the court system forever.” A faster tactic, he said, would be to defy the judge’s order and see if the court system is ready for the publicity that could follow Heicklen’s possible arrest.
“This thing is getting bigger,” Schmidter said. “It all depends on how many days in jail he’ll get tomorrow.”
Heicklen said he was motivated by a desire to uphold the First Amendment, which he thinks the judge’s is clearly violating.
“He is not following the law,” Heicklen said. “He is opposed to the law.”
Cox said he plans to show up at the courthouse as well, with a camcorder.
“I will be there,” he said. “I’m not there supporting Julian, but to videotape it, and report what happens on my blog, FloridaFIJA.org. I want to report the truth.”
The bottom line, Cox said, is he wants the public to understand – and embrace – what FIJA is advocating.
“It’s your way of protecting people from tyrannical government,” he said, adding that if people don’t like a particular law that someone is being charged with and they get chosen to serve as a juror on that case, “You have a right to deliver a not guilty verdict. It shows that particular law is not supported by the community. We have thousands of people put into jail every year for victimless crimes. If there is no victim and no crime, one person can make a difference.”
Schmidter agreed, and said that was why he spent so many months visiting the Orange County Courthouse every Monday morning, distributing the flyers to people entering the courthouse – until, of course, the judge issued his administrative order.
“I think it was just the consistency of me being there every Monday,” he said.
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