Journalist barred from Vermont courts files federal appeal
An amateur reporter barred from Vermont courts for criticizing a state judge is asking a federal appeals court to reinstate his First Amendment lawsuit against a city and several local officials.
Scott Huminski filed his appeal earlier this month with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to overturn a federal judge’s dismissal of the suit.
Last May, Huminski sued the state, the city of Rutland and several state, city and county officials, alleging that they violated his First and 14th Amendment rights by barring him from state court grounds after he refused to remove signs criticizing a state judge from his van.
Last October, U.S. District Judge J.G. Murtha granted motions filed by the city and county defendants to dismiss the charges, concluding that Huminski had “failed to demonstrate a clearly established federal right which the defendants violated.”
But Robert Corn-Revere, Huminski’s attorney for the appeal, says the First Amendment issues in the case are obvious.
“The real heart of the issue is whether local government officials can unilaterally silence speech and exert arbitrary power over their citizens,” said the Washington, D.C., attorney.
Pietro Lynn, the attorney representing the sheriff’s departments in Rutland and Bennington counties and their employees, says he’s confident his clients “will prevail on appeal.”
“We think [Huminski's] legal arguments will be unavailing,” he said.
Lynn refused to discuss the specifics of the case, saying he thought it would be inappropriate to do so at this time.
The attorney representing the city defendants did not return calls for this story.
Because Murtha dismissed Huminski’s claims based on motions filed by the county and city defendants, the state defendants are not involved in the appeal. The state defendants did file a motion to dismiss Huminski’s complaint in November, but that motion has been stayed pending the outcome of Huminski’s appeal.
Huminski’s lawsuit centered on an incident that occurred last May at the Rutland County District Courthouse. A self-described citizen-reporter, Huminski regularly attended court proceedings, collected information and later published his findings on signs posted on the outside of his home and on his van. On May 24, 1999, he attached to his van signs criticizing Rutland County District Court Judge Nancy Corsones and drove to the courthouse. One sign read “Judge Corsones: Butcher of the Constitution” and listed five ways Huminski thought Corsones had violated the Constitution.
Shortly after parking in the public parking lot, Huminski was approached by two Rutland County sheriff’s officials who ordered him to remove the signs or move his van off state court property. Huminski refused, saying the signs represented constitutionally protected speech, and entered the courthouse.
Approximately two hours later while waiting in the corridor of the courthouse, Huminski was approached by a Rutland city police officer and representatives from the county sheriff’s department. They served him with two notices of trespass issued by Corsones, the court clerk and the local sheriff. One notice ordered him not to enter properties controlled by the Rutland District Court, and the other ordered him not to enter Corsones’ residential property.
Huminski filed a motion to vacate these notices, but the Rutland District Court denied his request in June, saying the notices had already been withdrawn. But according to Huminski’s appeal, the notices were never officially cancelled.
A broader notice of trespass was issued on May 27 by Rutland District Court Judge M. Patricia Zimmerman, banning Huminski from “all lands and property under the control of the Supreme Court and the Commissioner of Buildings and General Services, including the Rutland District Court, parking areas, and lands.” The Bennington County sheriff served this notice at Huminski’s home in Bennington.
Corn-Revere interprets this trespass notice as including all state courts.
If he violates the notice, Huminski could be imprisoned for up to three months and/or fined up to $500. He says the constant threat of punishment has prevented him from attending or reporting on any court proceedings.
“I haven’t stepped foot in the Rutland courthouse” since the incident, he said. “All the players in this action are still there, and they would probably arrest me immediately if they saw me.”
Huminski’s appeal asks the court “to vindicate his rights to speak on matters of public concern, to attend public judicial proceedings, and thereafter to report on them without fear of arrest or other punishment.”
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has filed a brief in support of Huminski’s appeal.