Legal News of the Day: Supreme Court Hears Argument on Authority of Military Bases to Punish Protestors

This morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of United States v. Apel, concerning whether military bases have the authority to punish anti-war protestors who violate the rules of access to military facilities.  The military base in question is Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a base that the public needs special permission to enter, but across which runs Pacific Coast Highway, a public road, which are generally open to free speech activity.  In the late 1980s, a commander set up a public protest area just outside the main gate, along the highway.  There are laws making it a crime to enter a military base for an illegal purpose and to reenter a base after having been barred or removed from a base, but the federal government formally gave the state of California an easement to use the part of the Pacific Coast Highway that runs across the edge of the base as a public road.  The protest zone is within the space covered by the easement.

Supreme Court

The defendant in the case is no longer welcome in the protest zone due to an earlier incident in which he through blood on a sign at the gate of the base and then again years later for trespassing.  In 2010, Mr. Apel entered the protest zone on three occasions.  He was charged for violating the provision hat criminalizes entering a base after having been barred previously and convicted.  The Ninth Circuit overturned that conviction, relying on a prior case from the same military base that stated the Air Force can only punish those entering a base without permission if the military has “the exclusive right of possession” of the property and concluding that it shares authority over the protest zone and the part of Pacific Coast Highway because of the easement.

Check out SCOTUSblog’s analysis on the upcoming arguments to see the issues that will likely arise and what the court will be considering.