WASHINGTON (Mar. 23)
Two Soviet Jewry activist organizations demonstrated in front of the Soviet Embassy here Wednesday and gave local police passing marks.
The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry had gathered to “test the waters” of the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday limiting enforcement of a law banning demonstrations within 500 feet of a foreign embassy.
The 8-0 decision by the court would still allow the police to break up a group of three or more people if they disrupted the activities of the embassy or threatened security. But the decision bans police action against “peaceful congregations.”
About 30 people participated in the test, including Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). They sang “Hatikvah” and other songs in front of the embassy fence, using bullhorns, and even sat on the sidewalk.
They avoided arrest because they did not block the sidewalks or bar people from entering or leaving the embassy, according to Sgt. Gary Nelson of District of Columbia police. He added that police had not decided what level of noise would be tolerated.
The Supreme Court decision Tuesday was in two parts. By a 5 to 3 vote, the court struck down a section of the 50-year-old law that made it illegal to display any sign within 500 feet of an embassy that would bring a foreign government into “public odium” or “disrepute.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the decision, said the ban on the signs was a violation of the First Amendment “by prohibiting petitioners from engaging in classically political speech” on public sidewalks.
The ruling was welcomed by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “We view it as an extension of the rights of citizens in a free society to peacefully demonstrate,” the organization said.
The decision in the case, Boos v. Barry, upheld a suit filed in 1984 by three members of the Conservative Action Foundation, who complained that they were prevented from demonstrating within 500 feet of the Soviet and Nicaraguan embassies.
O’Connor said she agreed that the government must protect foreign embassies, but she said the 1938 law was too broad.
(JTA Washington correspondent Howard Rosenberg contributed to the report.)