ORLANDO – In 1962, Julian Heicklen was living in Los Angeles, and was an active member of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He took part in protests against a local housing development that refused to sell to blacks, latinos or Asians.
He also got arrested during those protests, for the first time in his life.
Almost 50 years later, Heicklen faced another first this week: his first arrest in Florida. He was taken into custody on Monday in front of the Orange County Courthouse, charged with contempt of court.
“This is the first time I’ve been arrested at a county courthouse,” Heicklen said. “All those arrests before have been in the federal courts.”
Heicklen, 79, has a lot of experience in the political arena – his activism started in the late 1940s when, as a high school student, he launched a petition sent to President Harry Truman calling on the U.S. government to support creation of a permanent homeland for Jews. This year, he’s a Libertarian candidate for the New Jersey State Assembly. He lives in Teaneck, N.J.
But he can’t do much campaigning right now, since he’s in the Orange County jail – and will be at least until Thursday, Sept. 1, when he will have his trial at the Orange County Courthouse before the chief judge, Belvin Perry. His arrest stems from Heicklen’s decision on Monday to hand out political flyers to prospective jurors coming to the courthouse. It’s something Heicklen has done numerous times this year – only, until Monday, he never got arrested for it.
“I was distributing jury information,” he said. The material is put out by the Fully Informed Jury Association, a Montana-based group that advocates jury nullification. Heicklen is a member of FIJA – or was, until he arrest this week. His membership dues have since been returned to him.
“They don’t want to be identified with people who get arrested,” he said.
Heicklen has been to Orlando numerous times, in part due to his friendship and association with another Libertarian activist, Mark Schmidter, who had been distributing the FIJA flyers in front of the Orange County Courthouse since last September. His actions prompted Perry to issue an administrative order banning anyone from giving political material to prospective jurors, which the judge called a form of jury tampering.
Schmidter stopped handing out the flyers, for a while, but Heicklen learned about the order and came to Orlando in March to engage in civil disobedience by violating it. During his numerous visits to the city and the courthouse, he never got arrested.
Neither did Schmidter, at least until June 29, when he was finally charged with contempt of court for handing out the flyers, and for doing so outside of a special free speech zone that Judge Perry had set up in front of the courthouse for protestors during the high profile Casey Anthony trial, which he was presiding over. Perry later found Schmidter guilty and sentenced him to five months in jail for the third degree felony. Schmidter is now out on bond pending his appeal of the judge’s verdict.
Heicklen returned to Orlando on Aug. 17 for what he called Orlando Protest Week. He went to the courthouse on Monday figuring no one would pay much attention to what he was doing.
“When I left before, I told Schmidter, we’re not going to get arrested,” he said. “I was prepared. The truth is, I didn’t know what they would do. I didn’t think they would arrest me.”
Heicklen said he got to the courthouse early Monday morning. He walked past the free speech zone and went directly to a walkway between the courthouse steps and the parking garage that jurors use, and began handing out the flyers there.
“Two deputies came out,” he said. “I started passing things out at 7:30. The deputies arrested me at 10 past 8.”
Heicklen said he offered no resistance.
“I laid down on the ground,” he said. “They put me in a wheelchair and took me into the courthouse to a holding cell. At noon I went before the judge for my arraignment. I didn’t say a word during the arraignment. I was exercising my Fifth Amendment right not to implicate myself.”
He was taken to the Orange County jail, where he remains today, and will stay until his trial on Sept. 1. Heicklen said he will represent himself, and plans to argue that the judge’s actions violate his First Amendment free speech rights.
“I was not in the free speech zone,” he said. “It’s strictly permissible to pass that information out in the free speech zone, but in the free speech zone there’s no pedestrian traffic. The person would have to go out of their way to go past the free speech zone. That’s why I was in the pathway halfway between the parking garage and the courthouse.”
Schmidter tried to make the same free speech argument during his trial in front of Judge Perry, but the judge convicted him anyway. Heicklen said it’s entirely possible he will also be found guilty, and given the same five month jail sentence – or longer. But he still plans to argue that the judge’s actions violate the U.S. Constitution.
“I will point out the literature itself is not prohibited,” he said. “I was the only one arrested for passing out literature. There were people passing out business cards left and right, and there were people passing out newspapers on that day. I was singled out among all these people doing the same thing. It’s called unequal enforcement.”
He also plans to argue that the judge’s original administrative order, issued on Jan. 31, is unconstitutional.
“My defense is it has not been outlawed to pass out literature here,” he said. “Can the judge order us not to pass out literature if you’re not in a specific place? He doesn’t have the right to do this.”
Heicklen said he knows the drill. In his years of civil disobedience, “I’ve made 62 appearances in 38 courts.” In most instances, he said, the charges against him have been dismissed.
Today, Heicklen is a retired professor and author of the book The Non-Trials as Lived by Julian Heicklen, which he said hasn’t lit up the charts on Amazon.com yet.
“I don’t think it’s doing too well in terms of sales,” he said. “It isn’t likely to become a big seller. It isn’t marketed for a mass audience.”
He’s also the head of an organization called Tyranny Fighters, which has more than 900 members and aims to overturn federal, state and local laws that he finds oppressive. Those include gun control laws, measures that ban medical marijuana use, and, locally, an Orlando ordinance that bans people from feeding the homeless in city parks. He spent part of this week joining the group Food Not Bombs in handing out meals to the homeless at Lake Eola.
“That’s the sort of thing that I do,” Heicklen said.
Ironically, Heicklen has spent a lot of his time trying to get the media to focus on others who have been arrested for laws he thinks are unconstitutional.
“We’re looking at a lot of guys with cases who got arrested, and I’m trying to draw attention to them,” he said.
Now he’s the one in jail, wearing the familiar blue jumpsuit for the general inmate population at Orange County Corrections. But Heicklen thinks now that the Casey Anthony trial is over, it will be easier to get the media to focus on what he and Schmidter have been doing – and his argument that it was wrong to arrest either one of them simply for exercising their right to free speech in public.
“The truth is there was a lot of media attention” during the Anthony trial, he said, “but it wasn’t on us. That’s why I came here – to see what would happen.”
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