ORLANDO – Eight months after he was arrested in front of the Orange County Courthouse and charged with contempt of court, Libertarian political activist Mark Schmidter says he’s moving forward with the appeal of his conviction, and hopes to build a broad nationwide movement in favor of the free speech issues he’s raising with this case.
Because what he hopes to drive home with this appeal, Schmidter said, is the fact that the very entity that he feels is restricting his free speech rights is the one that should most solemnly be committed to enforcing it: the courts.
“Usually the courts are defending free speech,” he said. “In this case, they’re doing the opposite.”
Schmidter and his attorney, Adam Sudbury of Orlando, are drafting an appeal of his conviction last September in Orange County Court by the chief justice, Belvin Perry, who rejected Schmidter’s free speech arguments and found him in contempt for violating an administrative order the judge had issued earlier that year.
The administrative order prohibited anyone from handing out political material to jurors coming into the courthouse. Schmidter had spent months handing out flyers on the issue of jury nullification.
The judge, who presided over the Casey Anthony murder trial last summer, also set up a “free speech zone” in front of the courthouse, and ordered that protesters were required to stay within the lines of the zone. Schmidter was found guilty of handing out the flyers in front of the courthouse, away from the free speech zone, and in violation of it.
But as Schmidter noted this week, the judge appears to have missed one crucial detail: the right of citizens to exercise free speech on public property.
“The really frightening part of this, is this is the only courthouse in the country that we know that put in a free speech zone on the property,” Schmidter said. “They have one out at UCF (the University of Central Florida), but they never put one on a courthouse grounds that we know of — anywhere. Because of this, if we don’t win this appeal – and I say we, the country, the electorate – basically that opens the door for them and they could put a free speech zone anywhere they want, and basically you lose your free speech rights.”
Schmidter and Sudbury have a filing deadline of March 23 to get the appeal ready. In the meantime, Schmidter, a roofing contractor and supporter of Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his Libertarian brand of politics, has continued distributing the flyers about jury nullification, which are printed by the organization Fully Informed Jurors Association, or FIJA, based in Helena, Montana, while also trying to raise awareness of his conviction. He was released on bond pending the outcome of his appeals. If he loses the appeals, he goes back to the Orange County jail to serve out the remainder of his five month jail sentence.
Schmidter, 64, had been arrested on June 29, as Perry was presiding over the Anthony trial. Schmidter was given 141 days in the 33 Street jail for violating the judge’s administrative order against the jury pamphlets, and 151 days for stepping out of the free speech zone. Schmidter was also given a $250 fine for each violation.
The charge is a third degree felony, so Schmidter is now a convicted felon — for handing out political flyers on public, taxpayer-funded property.
When people learn about his conviction, Schmidter said, they’re often stunned – and angry.
“Most of them say ‘I just can’t believe it,’ “ he said. “They don’t believe it when I tell them this stuff. It’s really frightening when you think of it. Everybody is really interested in it.”
Schmidter no longer takes the flyers onto the Orange County Courthouse property, although he added, “I’m still doing FIJA work.” These days, he travels to neighboring counties where there is no administrative order banning the practice, like the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, and when he travels around the state – as he did recently on a trip to Port St. Lucie to visit relatives – he’ll make a stop at the local courthouses there as well.
“The cops are becoming a little bit smarter,” he said. “When I was at Port St. Lucie, I was handing them out where you walk in the doors to the courthouse. As I was doing that, a constable walked out and said ‘Can I talk to you on the sidewalk?’ As I was walking out to the sidewalk, I was still handing out flyers to people walking into the courthouse. By the time I got to the sidewalk, he said ‘You can’t do this, this is soliciting.’ I said ‘No, no, I’m not soliciting, soliciting is when you ask for something back. I’m not doing that. And if you want me to stop, then you have to get an administrative judge to write an administrative order to say I can’t do this.’ When I said that, he just didn’t know what to say. He’s never had anyone tell him what he had to do to get me to quit. He looked like a deer in the headlights.”
Schmidter continues to believe this case can make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s got to get out of Florida first before it goes to the federal Supreme Court,” he said. “It’s $5,000 to get it out of the state courts, then it will be another $5,000 for incidentals for the Supreme Court. But Adam said this is something the Supreme Court likes to hear because it’s nice and simple, unlike a tax case with tons of files. Is a free speech zone constitutional? Are you allowed to put a no trespassing order on people on public property?”
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