All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 2000

The Day We Read No More

The Perils of a Maryland Courtroom Reading Ban

Angus Crane is a lawyer in Virginia.

I recently appeared before the Montgomery County District Court, Traffic Division, in Rockville, Maryland, to challenge a traffic citation. I arrived 30 minutes before the court convened. I must first confess, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, that “reading with me is a disease.” Thus like TR, I always carry a book with me and savor every moment that allows me to read a few chapters or just a snippet. Waiting for the court session to begin, I immersed myself in a Charles Dickens novel. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a uniformed court security officer towering over me with a black truncheon pointing toward Dickens.

As I glanced up, the officer said, “You’re not allowed to read in the courtroom.” Mistaking this for a feeble attempt at humor, I chuckled and re-buried my head between the pages. The now ominous nightstick extended itself to the back of my book and flipped it shut. “You’re not allowed to read in the courtroom,” he repeated.

I was dumbfounded but not too stunned to insist on an explanation. He informed me that reading was prohibited to prevent distractions that might cause a defendant to miss his appearance before the judge. Moreover, the guard elaborated, the rustling of pages creates a disturbance. I pointed out that the court was in recess, so I should be allowed to resume my reading. “You’re not allowed to read in the courtroom,” he said. My desire to avoid a traffic fine inspired me to hold my tongue.

When the judge entered, he immediately emphasized that we were in his courtroom and issued a stern warning that a defendant’s name would be called only once. Were a defendant to step outside the courtroom or fail to hear the bailiff’s announcement, the case would be rescheduled or a fine imposed. Lastly, the judge confirmed that no reading was allowed.

Three elements of the reading ban disturb me. First, administrative issues are elevated to a higher level of importance than the fundamental right of free choice; this confusion of values evidently stems from the judge’s prideful dominion over the courtroom. Second, the judge usurps the individual initiative that forges independent thought and action. Third, the judge’s policy ignores the potential ramifications of an encroachment upon the free exchange of ideas, written or spoken.

The Presumption of Power

To rationalize a ban on courtroom reading, the judge must have relied on a number of assumptions. Michel de Montaigne once observed that presumption is a vanity that persuades man to establish himself as the equal to God. “Let us smash such presumption,” urged Montaigne. The ban on reading suggests that the judge succumbed to presumption’s vanity.

The judge’s assertive territorial claim on the courtroom left an impression of an authoritarian run amok. The courtroom belongs to the people. They pay for it with their taxes, and it has been erected as a community forum in which they seek redress from injury and obtain justice. Certainly the judge’s stewardship requires him to administer the law and maintain control over the proceedings. To accomplish that task, the judge is invested with power to preserve an atmosphere of decorum and dignity. Within the reasonable limits of judicial authority, the bench may also prohibit behavior that might degrade the court.

But some judges have taken license to repress criticism of the court. In Florida, for example, the Decorum Rule forbade gestures or expressions of approval or disapproval. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that the rule deprived court participants of their First Amendment rights. That decision (Essen v. Mellon) follows precedent circumscribing a judge’s exercise of his power of contempt and specifically contempt citations in response to personal criticism. In 1925 Chief Justice William Howard Taft cautioned the judiciary that the power of contempt “is a delicate [authority] and care is needed to avoid arbitrary or oppressive conclusions.” Taft further exhorted members of the bench to “banish the slightest personal impulse to reprisal.” This tradition illustrates the importance of dispelling the mystique of the infallible judge.

Judicial Bullies

Indeed, judicial review boards have deemed some judges bullies. Whimsical rules that infringe on basic rights have been legally invalidated. Judges who have abused their authority have suffered sanctions and in some circumstances have been ejected from office. Simply because a judge is adorned in stately vestments does not bestow the imprimatur of wisdom on the court’s actions.

If he focused on his duty to protect the interests of the people instead of flattering himself with his authority, the judge would see that eliminating distractions is secondary to individual rights. The court explained in meticulous detail the consequences faced by a defendant who failed to appear when summoned before the bench. This explicit notice fairly places responsibility on the defendant. Yet by forbidding reading, the judge demonstrates a significant lack of confidence in the defendant’s capacity to make the right choice.

The anti-reading policy attacks freedom of choice, the very essence of individuality. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator comments on that essence:

[M]an may purposely, consciously choose for himself even the harmful and the stupid, even the stupidest thing—just so that he will have the right to wish the stupidest thing, and not be bound by the duty to have only intelligent wishes. For this most stupid thing, this whim of ours, gentlemen, may really be more advantageous to us than anything on earth, especially in certain cases. In fact, it may be the most advantageous of all advantages even when it brings us obvious harm and contradicts the most sensible conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage. Because, at any rate, it preserves for us the most important and most precious thing—our personality, our individuality.

While the judge might suggest that reading could be distracting, he goes further and nursemaids the defendant. The court’s attitude of superiority shows a disdain for another’s ability to make an intelligent choice. Individuality indeed often produces imprudent decisions, but the repercussions from faulty judgment are insignificant compared to the explosive consequences from an assault on individual freedom.

The court’s ban on reading hardly guarantees that defendants will pay attention. What if one defendant obediently refrains from reading, but nonetheless daydreams. Another defendant may engage in fantasies so vivid as to render his brain impermeable to the bailiff’s voice. Perhaps yet another rehearses an argument with her husband.

The district court also presumed that a defendant could not read and simultaneously listen for the bailiff. There are such gifted people. Granted, many people can do only one thing at a time; they no doubt conduct themselves accordingly.

Dangerous Encroachments

The tyranny of censorship has plagued the written word since the advent of papyrus scrolls. Thus whenever our right to read is tinkered with, an alarm should reverberate across the land. Samuel Johnson accurately described the drive within each human being for knowledge and understanding offered by the written word: “A desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind” Johnson said, “and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge” Because our ability and opportunity to read the written word are among our most cherished possessions, this fountain of knowledge and learning must never be permitted to evaporate or dissipate.

As a practical approach, all judges and judicial systems throughout the United States should leave reading in courtrooms to personal choice. Where abuse of judicial discretion diminishes individual freedom, the offending judge should be subjected to a professional board of review, with sanctions or expulsion imposed when a judge exhibits a pattern of disregard for personal liberties.