Right down the middle

Published 10:12 pm Thursday, July 17, 2014

Suffolk Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason had a fine line to tread on Wednesday as he heard the appeal of a man who had been convicted on a trespassing charge in General District Court. Such cases are normally pretty straightforward — was the defendant in a place he had no right to be, or did he fail to leave a place when asked by the owner to do so?

The case of Hampton resident Sanford Pankin, however, was more complex. In February, during a fundraising event at King’s Fork Middle School held by the Suffolk Art League, Pankin showed up looking for signatures on a petition to have Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Robert Sarvis added to the November ballot.

The case hinged on a couple of important factors: Was the school a public venue, since it is owned by the school system, or was it a private venue by virtue of the fact that it had been rented for the event by the art league. And did Pankin have a right to “crash the party” being held by the art league in the name of free speech?

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Does the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech trump the also constitutionally guaranteed rights to property and free association? That was the question Judge Eason had to determine in a ruling that hinged on the art league’s control of the school’s common areas under its lease with the school system.

Though Pankin had initially collected signatures in a common area prescribed for the art league’s use, near the school’s front entrance, he testified that he moved to an area 500 feet or more from the door after being confronted by police. Eason ruled that in doing so, Pankin had moved to an area not controlled by the art league and was, therefore, on public property and not trespassing on the private function. He dismissed the charges.

It was a sensible ruling that reflected a commonsense approach to resolving an apparent conflict of constitutional rights. A citizen renting a public building for an approved and lawful private purpose should have a right to invite those he wishes to attend and exclude those he might expect to disrupt the event. On the other hand, the right to free expression should guarantee that citizens can peacefully use public property for protests or petition drives, as long as they do not endanger or infringe upon the rights of others by doing so.

A ruling by Eason that Pankin had an unrestrained right to collect signatures on his petition within the confines of a private event would have trampled the property and free-association rights of the art league. Conversely a ruling that Pankin should not have been allowed anywhere on school property would have trampled his right to free speech.

Judge Eason deftly avoided either unconstitutional extreme with a solomonic decision that protected everyone’s rights, even if it left both parties unsatisfied.