In Your Court: Court decorum and civil disobedience

Judge Steve Halsey

This fall a controversy has arisen over the free speech rights of athletes to kneel during the national anthem. This is not a new phenomenon. For decades courts have ruled that children may not be disciplined for refusal to recite the pledge of allegiance at school. However, the right of free speech stops at the courtroom door to a large degree and with few exceptions. 

If you are ever in court, you do not want to hear “I am finding you in contempt of court.” Direct contempt of court may be found by a judge if a party or lawyer in the courtroom says or behaves in a highly disrespectful way to the court. This may include showing up for court while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a somewhat frequent occurrence in our court; or using profane language or shouting or threatening someone present or failing to remain in the witness box or at counsel table. It must be something that the judge hears or sees in the courtroom. If someone is found in contempt of court, they are usually sentenced to a few hours (to sober up) or a few days in jail to ponder their poor judgment in acting as they did. Court rules of decorum are necessary for the fair and efficient administration of justice, and for respect of our system of justice. 

Other acts or inaction in court may result in contempt: 

• Refusing to rise or continuing to talk when the judge’s entrance is announced.

• Wearing clothing with a profane message

• Wearing clothing intending to influence the judge or juror and refusing to remove it, such as “Justice for Jimmy” (victim).

• Speaking out of turn or abusively, such as interrupting a lawyer’s final argument to a jury. 

There are many incidents of direct contempt of court which one can view on YouTube. These usually involve a defendant in custody calling the judge a profane name, or giving them “the finger,” but may also include courtroom brawls among defendants, and members of the audience. These brawls are very dangerous and not at all funny. 

Contempt of court is very serious business as it can result in time in jail. If someone is making a motion to have you held in contempt of court, you should consult an attorney long before the hearing, or apply for a court-appointed attorney if you are indigent. 

— Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at

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