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Court rules against protester at military base

Feb. 26, 2014 - 12:48PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday against an anti-war activist who was barred from a protest area near the main gate at a California Air Force base.

The justices threw out an appeals court ruling that overturned the trespassing conviction of John Dennis Apel under a law giving commanding officers authority to prevent people from entering military installations.

Apel had been barred because of earlier protest activities from entering any part of Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast, including a designated protest area on a public highway that passes near the main gate.

Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court that the law clearly puts the area under the authority of the base commander, even though the public is allowed to use the highway and other nearby land.

The decision didn’t address Apel’s First Amendment right of free speech, and he may be able to raise that argument before a California-based federal appeals court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested in a brief concurrence that Apel may well prevail on that claim.

Apel had been visiting the designated protest zone at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast for 14 years. He had previously run into trouble at the base when, in 2003, he threw 4 ounces of his own blood on the Vandenberg sign.

That incident led to the first of several orders barring him from entering any part of the base, including the protest area. The military owns the highway but grants the state and Santa Barbara County an easement so the public can use it. The protest zone was set up in the late 1980s as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit.

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