Thursday, May 6, 2010

I Have the [Obscene Name of Body Part], I Make The Rules--T-Shirt, Gets Chicago-area Woman Jailed

Being a life-long free speech sort of Bad Lawyer does not mean that I think you can walk into a courtroom with an obscene message on your t-shirt.  So this story which I picked off the ABAJournal website and traced to the original report at the Lake County NewsSun caught my attention.  A 19 year old Chicago-area woman decided it was appropriate to show support for her girlfriend by coming to court attired in a t-shirt that proclaimed her possession of  the t-shirt in the picture on the right.

While it sounds like the Judge may have reacted a little too quick in jailing the sartorially outspoken teenager, I'm not going to be shedding a whole lot of tears over the deprivation of her "freedom of speech," I know this will shock regular readers of this "blawg."  Here's an excerpt from Beth Kramer's article:

"A Round Lake Park woman was held in contempt and jailed for two days for the message on her T-shirt.

The message was: 'I own the (female body part), so I make the rules.'

'They should be out looking for people who are breaking the law, not arresting someone wearing a T-shirt,'  LaPenta said. Associate Judge Helen Rozenburg charged LaPenta with contempt of court for wearing the garment in her courtroom Monday. LaPenta was sitting in the gallery waiting for a friend's case to be called when the judge called her forward. Rozenburg asked LaPenta if she thought her shirt was appropriate.   LaPenta said she told the judge that it would have been inaprorpriate had she been the defendant.  Rozenburg immediately sentenced her to 48 hours in jail and had her cuffed, LaPenta said.

LaPenta contends that she never went to bond court or got to call her mother. 'They just threw me in jail. They never told me what I was going to jail for,' LaPenta said. LaPenta said that she had been at a gym Monday when her friend asked her for a ride to the courthouse. She was wearing sweat pants and that T-shirt when she was cuffed and jailed.

'All the officers thought it was hilarious -- it was humiliating,' LaPenta said.

LaPenta said she bought the shirt in the gay section of Spencer's. She said she is openly homosexual and said the judge was a 'homophobe' for putting her in custody for wearing the shirt.  'I'm shocked that the judge took the actions she did. She could have asked her to remove her shirt or leave the courtroom,' said Peter Kalagis, LaPenta's attorney. 'To me, that was an extreme action.' LaPenta said the judge did not give her an opportunity to turn her shirt inside out or exit the courtroom.

Rozenburg said she could not comment on this case.  Chief Judge Victoria Rossetti confirmed that it was at the discretion of the court to determine what behavior constitutes contempt. She also said she could not comment on the case."
Seriously, folks you are not entitled to go into a courtroom with a placard proclaiming your obscene belief in any personal or political viewpoint.  Free speech can be regulated as to time and place, and the courtroom is not the time and place. 

My guess is that the Lake County Courthouse has posted rules (there usually are) relating to appropriate clothing which Miss LaPenta ignored.   Should Miss LaPenta have been cuffed and incarcerated?  No.  But as I said I'm having a hard time mustering a whole lot of sympathy for her. 

Over the years, I've been amazed at the apparel (or lack thereof) that clients or litigants wear to court.  Setting aside t-shirts proclaiming political viewpoints which are always inappropriate, mere grooming would be nice.  I'm long overdue to revisit "style diktats" this time, I will look at the larger question of appropriate clothing for clients.  Soon, I promise...


  1. I disagree. I believe Cohen v. California, 403 US 15 (1971) is on point and prohibits the court's conduct in this instance.

  2. Anon 12:32--
    I serously doubt that we disagree on the legal question.

  3. Badness is right,Cohen was struck down a criminal statute while this is a contempt citation which the Judge imposed arbitrarily and improperly but I bet the rule against t-shirts expressing povs can be legally barred from court rooms on pain of contempt.

  4. She could have just taken the shirt off.

  5. apparently she didn't "make the rules", aftrall?

  6. It's always interesting to me which stories generate comments, for instance, the Kent State story has a real inside account, no comments--thus far. The astonishing story of Ray Towler who spent 29 years in priosn, not a mention. But some brat with a obscene Tee, that brings out my small populatio of commentariat!

    Trust me, I'm grateful.


  7. I dont believe the shirt was obscene under the Miller test. In addition, there were clearly less restrictive alternatives the judge could have taken. If the shirt didnt interfere with the administration of justice, then there wasnt any compelling interest served by jailing the woman. I dont see how the judge could jail her if she couldnt be arrested for wearing a shirt and I dont see how any statute prohibiting those words would pass survive constitutional scrutiny. Speech is and deserves to be protected.

  8. Uh, I don't really know, but as to the difference between Cohen v CA being a criminal statute in contrast to a contempt judgment by a judge (as per rules of the Court): It would only make sense that the rules of the Court are limited in scope, and I believe that that is where the real issue lies. Although a judicial council may have some latitude in constructing the rules, it cannot be absolute. What if they created a rule that latinos cannot view trials (clearly unconstitutional), or blacks have to pay higher filing fees? There must be some mechanism of appeal and review, otherwise judges would have absolute power. I would imagine review would include factors such as whether the action compromised the decorum of the court, incited violence, is constitutional, etc. I know nothing of case law regarding this, but I bet there is some.

    As to why some posts generate a lot of comments while others, more profound don't, at least in my case, there's nothing to add of value. Ray Towler's case is clearly a travesty; it happens way too frequently and yet prosecutors are trying to prevent more DNA analyses of closed cases even though they have no rational reasons to back up that stance. But pretty much everyone agrees with that, except possibly the prosecutors. What's to say? I bet if you tried posting that Chocolate ice cream was clearly superior to vanilla, and included a bunch of bogus justifications, you'd end up with a slew of comments about a subject with no right answer of of no importance.

  9. Of course a Judge has the power, although circumscribed by certain limits, reasonableness comes to mind, to control his or her courtroom for decorum and I imagine that includes rude and political speach (am I being redundant?) on t-shirts. The problem with what this judge did, is the summary nature of the contempt proceeding versus Miss Biatch.
    My Bad Lawyer is not supplying bogus justifications when he says snotty little girl is inviting a conference with a judge when rocks a t-shirt referencing her twat. I myself have seen many a fool ordered to remove hats, and to leave courtrooms when less than appropriately dressed for court, J.


  10. Ming the Merciless Siamese CatMay 10, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    Neither the shirt nor its message are "obscene" in the legal sense of the term. Therefore, Cohen v. California looks controlling here. The judge violated the spectator's First Amendment rights by illegally incarcerating her for speech. Power-mad bitch ought to be removed from the bench.