Demjanjuk case sparks ruling allowing simultaneous protests

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CLEVELAND (JTA) — In a precedent-setting case involving accused Nazi death-camp guard John Demjanjuk, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that simultaneous protest by groups with opposing views is a right protected under the First Amendment.

In its 7-0 decision, the court ruled Wednesday of last week that an injunction prohibiting simultaneous protesting was unconstitutional. Ohio becomes the first state expressly recognizing that the right to counterdemonstration is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

"The Ohio Supreme Court did the right thing in upholding a robust view of free speech," said Raymond Vasvari, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued the case.

The case, Seven Hills vs. Aryan Nations, originated in 1993 when the city of Seven Hills enacted a total ban on protesting in anticipation of Demjanjuk's return after seven years of incarceration and trial in Israel.

Demjanjuk returned in September 1993 after Israel's Supreme Court acquitted him on charges that he was the notorious Treblinka guard "Ivan the Terrible." But the court also found compelling evidence that Demjanjuk was an SS guard at the Sobibor death camp and other Nazi concentration camps.

At the time, protesters in front of Demjanjuk's home included Holocaust survivors and their supporters, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, national president of Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA.

Other demonstrators, who supported Demjanjuk's claims of innocence, included members of the white supremacist Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan organizations and members of the Ukrainian community.

In December 1993, Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Gaul ruled that the ban on protesting was unconstitutional. However, he issued an injunction banning simultaneous protests of groups with opposing viewpoints.

The restraining order limited the number of protesters, restricted the times they could protest and prohibited two opposing groups from picketing simultaneously.

The American Civil Liberties Union had argued that the injunction was unconstitutional because it limits the use of free speech.

Vasvari said the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld in earlier decisions the proposition that speech cannot be prohibited because it risks inciting others to violence, unless there is "a clear and present danger of imminent violence or lawlessness."

The Ohio court's decision indicates that the city failed to show the threat of imminent violence in the context of a peaceful protest, he said.