By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A judge has invalidated a federal law banning protests on the marble plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
District Judge Beryl Howell said in a ruling issued on Tuesday that the law violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.
Harold Hodge, a student from Maryland, challenged the law after he was arrested in January 2011 for standing on the plaza holding a sign stating that the government "allows police to illegally murder and brutalize African-Americans and Hispanic people."
Protesters are generally allowed to stand on the sidewalk in front of the court, but not on the plaza, which is reached by walking up several steps from the sidewalk.
Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said officials were evaluating the opinion.
As of 2010, the Supreme Court's ornamental bronze front doors, which are reached via steps leading up from the plaza, have been closed to the public. The court cited security risks in making its decision.
The law also bans processions or parades in the court grounds in addition to the display of signs supporting a particular cause or party.
Those who violate the law, which was enacted in 1949, can face a fine and up to 60 days in prison.
Howell wrote that the law is "unreasonable, substantially overbroad, and irreconcilable with the First Amendment." She indicated, though, that her ruling only applied to the plaza and not inside the court building.
She noted that protesters could still fall foul of a District of Columbia law that addresses obstruction of entrances to buildings.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)