A Lesson On The Meaning Of “Harangue” And “Oration”


In U.S. v. Brownstein, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, reversing the District Court, held that a federal law regulating conduct in the Supreme Court Building, 40 U.S.C. § 6134, which prohibits “harangues and orations” during oral argument, is constitutionally infirm.  On April 1, 2015, the defendants interrupted oral argument to announce their displeasure for the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a political speech case.  Noting that the defendants had fair notice of the rules governing conduct in this area, the DC Circuit, citing the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” concluded that a” person of ordinary intelligence could read this law and understand that, as a member of the Supreme Court’s oral argument audience, making disruptive public speeches is clearly proscribed behavior.”

Section 6134, entitled “Firearms, fireworks, speeches, and objectionable language in the Supreme Court Building and grounds,” provides:

It is unlawful to discharge a firearm, firework or explosive, set fire to a combustible, make a harangue or oration, or utter loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds.

The District Court concluded that ‘harangues’ and ‘orations’ ‘cannot be determined without reference to subjective perceptions and individual sensitivities,'” and struck them as unconstitutionally vague. The DC Circuit disagreed:

Employing the tools of statutory interpretation, we hold 40 U.S.C. § 6134 gives a core meaning to both ‘harangue’ and ‘oration.’ This core meaning is delivering speeches of various kinds to persons within the Supreme Court’s building and grounds, in a manner that threatens to disturb the operations and decorum of the Court. In the context of the Supreme Court’s building and grounds, the terms’ core meaning proscribes determinable conduct. Thus, the district court erred in striking the terms as void for vagueness.

The DC Circuit noted the “[t]he longstanding principles of statutory interpretation hold that ‘a word is known by the company it keeps.'” It went onto note that “[t]he prohibitions surrounding ‘harangue’ and ‘oration’ demonstrate concern with disruptions of the Supreme Court’s order and decorum.” The prohibition of noises that tend to disrupt the Court’s operations “should illuminate the construction of ‘harangue’ and ‘oration.'” By keeping this concern in mind, the use of “harangue” and “oration” refers “to public speeches that tend to disrupt the Court’s operations, and no others.” Ultimately, the DC Circuit concluded that the District Court erred in striking these two terms as unconstitutionally vague and reversed and remanded the matter for further proceedings.