Anti-war protests at Vandenberg Air Force Base were at the heart of arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday. The case was argued by the dean of UC Irvine’s law school — with a lot of legal help from students.
The case involves John Dennis Apel, who started protesting at Vandenberg Air Force Base days before the beginning of the Iraq war. He says throwing blood at Vandenberg’s sign was “a good symbolic gesture” to remind pilots of the human destruction from their bombs. Apel was cited for trespassing at the base 15 times over 15 months and eventually banned by the base commander from even the designated protest site on Pacific Coast Highway.
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Wednesday, UC Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky argued on behalf of Apel, continuously bringing up his First Amendment right, saying, “When a public road has been created, it always includes a First Amendment right for speech.”
But the justices wanted to hear arguments about real estate, not First Amendment rights.
Years ago, Vandenberg granted an easement to the state and county for Pacific Coast Highway. Justices were skeptical that an easement negates a military commander’s power to protect his base. They continuously interrupted Chemerinsky, and most justices dismissed his attempts to bring up the right to free speech.
Chemerinsky's arguments were researched and rehearsed by law students from UC Irvine. Students spent their summer reading Supreme Court precedent, military law, meeting with Apel, even visiting Vandenberg to see the protest zone for themselves.
Recent UCI graduate Selwyn Chu says they decided to put the First Amendment “front and center, because we thought in a lot of ways it was our best argument.” He says he learned from listening to the justices that his legal team could raise the issue, but Supreme Court justices "don’t have to listen to it.”
So what was it like hearing your arguments torn apart by the Supreme Court?
Third-year student Jamie Sanderson called it “a bit maddening.” But fellow student Katie Riley says it’s “part of training to be a lawyer” to learn “how to tear your own arguments apart.” The students did just that in a series of moot court trials with lawyers and professors sitting as the justices.
Chemerinsky says even if the High Court rules against Apel on the statutory issue of who gets to make the rules governing that piece of Pacific Coast Highway, the First Amendment issue could again be raised back at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Apel is allowed to continue his anti-war protests at Vandenberg. “I’m not the threat to the national security,” he says. “It’s what I have to say that is the threat, and that is why they don’t want me out there.”
Apel's right to protest could be withdrawn if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 9th Circuit ruling. which had upheld Apel's right to protest on the easement.