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article image‘Free speech zones’ or fair trials – the Mark Schmidter story Special

By Mike Lapointe     Feb 21, 2012 in Politics
Orlando - Mark Schmidter wanted to be involved in the political process, but wasn’t satisfied with traditional forms of civic participation. So he turned his attention to the courts. For his troubles, the 64-year-old Schmidter received a 151 day prison sentence.
In June 2011, Schmidter was accused of violating two administrative orders. One for engaging in First Amendment activities outside of designated “Free Speech Zones” around the Orange County courthouse in downtown Orlando – and another for distributing literature designed to ‘influence jurors’. His case has not gone unnoticed by the local media.
After becoming involved with local movements that represented the more ‘radical’ fringe of Republican politics in Florida – and meeting individuals particularly interested in First Amendment politics – Schmidter believed he could use his time most effectively by educating potential jurors of their rights under the constitution.
Schmidter began handing out his pamphlets entitled “Your Jury Rights: True or False” outside the courthouse in September 2010. His pamphlet began by asking “why do most judges tell you that you may consider ‘only the facts’ – that you must not let your conscience, opinion of the law, or the motives of the defendant affect your decision?”
Another question followed: “how can people get fair trials if the jurors are told they can’t use their conscience?”
He sensed there was something amiss with the fact that “40% of the people in Federal Prisons are non-violent drug users” and that “this country is less than 5% of the population of the world but has 25% of the world’s jail population”
As he pointed out, “we have more than Russia and China combined.”
Schmidter was concerned about the dangers within what he deemed as ‘bad laws’. He became aware of the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) in the summer of 2010 through his connections at the Campaign for Liberty. The role of FIJA is to “educate Americans regarding their full powers as jurors, including their ability to rely on personal conscience, to judge the merit of the law and its application, and to nullify bad law, when necessary for justice, by finding for the defendant.”
Jury nullification has a long history in Western society. From the Salem witch trials to William Penn to McCarthyism – failure to understand the moral or ethical content of a law in reaching a verdict – as a juror – is an abdication of justice and one’s responsibility as a citizen. In the American legal system, it’s the judge’s job to “referee the event and provide neutral legal advice to the jury, properly beginning with a full explanation of juror’s rights and responsibilities” according to the literature, distributed under the banner of FIJA.
He had been handing out his pamphlets for over half a year when he was arrested and brought in front of Orange County Justice Belvin Perry.
Judge Perry also happens to be the judge who presided over the infamous Casey Anthony trial earlier this summer. The Anthony trial was of course highly controversial and garnered international attention earlier this year after Anthony was found not-guilty of murdering her daughter after a lengthy and emotionally-charged trial.
But the reasons Schmidter did what he did had nothing to do with the Anthony trial itself (he was arrested during the jury selection process for the trial). The activist wasn’t concerned with challenging the content of particular laws or with protesting against the highly-publicized case. Rather, Schmidter believed it was his patriotic duty to bring attention to juror’s rights as enshrined under the constitution. It just so happened that the Anthony trial occurred where Schmidter had been passing out his literature for many months prior.
In exercising his right to protest, the judge felt that Schmidter posed a direct threat to the impartial selection of jury members. Schmidter disagreed, as most of those people he came in contact with during his time in front of the courthouse “were summoned jurors – they weren’t even [assigned] jurors yet, so they had nothing to do with the case.”
For Schmidter, this is “why it can’t be jury tampering – and that’s an important part.”
The Schmidter case brings the debate between the protection of free speech under the constitution and the right to a fair trial squarely into focus.
He’s currently out on a $1,000 bail financed by both himself and through contributions of people in the Campaign for Liberty community. He hopes his case goes all the way to the Supreme Court – something which won’t come cheap. Schmidter told this blogger that “it’s $5,000 to get it through the state of Florida and another $5,000 to get it to the Federal Supreme Court.”
Speaking at a local libertarian meeting on February 9th, Schmidter criticized the existence of ‘free speech’ zones and defended his actions on the steps of Orlando’s courthouse.
It’s the precedent that he worries about most as “as there was no such thing as a free speech zone at any courthouse and [Judge Belvin] initiated one last June.”
“If we lose this appeal – basically they can put a free speech zone any way they want, in any county courthouse, anywhere they want.” According to Schmidter, when Judge Belvin established the ‘Free Speech Zones’ outside of the courthouse during the Casey Anthony trial, they “were supposed to be temporary” in light of the trial’s publicity. Those zones remain in effect to this day.
“Freedom of speech is what you and I are doing here right now – so none of it makes any sense. This is a direct first amendment challenge that we all have to be aware of – it’s a real serious thing.”
OrlandoCopWatch.com is a watchdog site that has been following Schmidter’s case. It provides individuals the opportunity to voice their opposition to Judge Belvin’s decision and to explain why they feel Schmidter’s sentence represents a direct affront to the First Amendment.
Individuals accused of crimes under the law certainly have the right to a fair trial overseen by a jury of their peers. This right is a pillar of Western democracy. But those chosen to be members of a jury are just as entitled to be fully informed as to their rights and responsibilities under the constitution – and to keep those responsible for upholding the law honest and accountable to the people.
More about First amendment, Mark Schmidter, Orange county, Casey Anthony
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