LAS VEGAS — A deputy public defender in Las Vegas gave in to a judge’s request on Thursday to remove a “Black Lives Matter” pin in court, after a free-form discussion about the politics of protest and free speech amid a national debate over police brutality and race relations.
In a new show of defiance that wasn’t directly addressed by the judge, Deputy Public Defender Erika Ballou and several attorneys in the audience behind her wore black arm bands.
“I’m taking off the button. I will not wear it in this courtroom in the future,” Ballou told Clark County District Court Judge Douglas Herndon.
“You’ve expressed the fact that you intend to be viewpoint-neutral, and so I will take it off,” she said, “and I believe we can go forward.”
In front of an audience full of supporters, including several who kept wearing their “Black Lives Matter” buttons, Ballou and her boss, Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, acknowledged that case law wasn’t on their side.
They agreed with the judge, who said courts have ruled a courtroom is a “non-public forum” where judges can enforce “reasonable and viewpoint-neutral” restrictions on free speech.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with Black Lives Matter,” Herndon said. “It’s about political speech. It’s about remaining neutral and impartial in the court.”
“A black defendant or a white victim … or a Hispanic witness, or a member of the public,” the judge added. “Nobody should come in and think, ‘Gee, is the judge focusing on that?'”
Outside court, Ballou, who is black, compared the arm band to ribbons that uniformed police and court officers wear on badges to mourn colleagues killed in the line of duty.
She said she believes such displays are also political in nature, and suggested that the issue may end up before state and federal appeals courts.
“It might have to go higher up than this,” she told The Associated Press.
Ballou balked Tuesday at Herndon’s request that she remove the small round “Black Lives Matter” pin from her blouse while representing a white domestic battery defendant at his sentencing hearing.
Herndon sentenced the man on Thursday to five years of probation with strict in-patient substance abuse and domestic violence counseling,
Ballou’s protest came two months after a black defense attorney in Youngstown, Ohio, was arrested on a contempt of court charge for wearing a similar pin in a municipal courtroom.
That attorney, Andrea Burton, said Wednesday she settled her federal civil rights lawsuit with an agreement that allows her to wear the pin in the courthouse — but not in the courtroom.
She said she believed the agreement means uniformed officers also won’t be able to wear black bands on badges in court.
Ballou and Burton said they’ve never met or communicated with each other, and didn’t know of the other’s protest until they were informed by a reporter.
Ballou said she knew wearing her pin this week would be controversial after the Las Vegas police union sent a letter to judges complaining about what the union executive termed “‘Black Lives Matter’ propaganda” in courtrooms.