The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that Princeton violated the free speech provisions of the state constitution by arresting a U.S. Labor Party activist for trespassing when he tried to distribute political leaflets on campus.
The April 1978 arrest triggered a legal battle between the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented nonstudent activist Chris Schmid, and former U.S. attorney general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, a Princeton trustee who represented the university.
The court's 7-to-2 decision earlier this week is seen as a precedent likely to be used in many states against private institutions that restrict access to their property by outside activists.
The decision also is expected to bolster a trend among civil liberties attorneys, who are increasingly taking cases to state rather than federal courts while there is a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Katzenbach, in oral arguments in February, took the position that Schmid was an uninvited guest on the campus. He argued that "Princeton could bar all uninvited guests -- and invited ones . . . We believe we have the right."
ACLU attorneys argued that Schmid's arrest by campus police violated his speech and assembly rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I of the state constitution.
The state Supreme Court endorsed only half the ACLU argument.
Justice Alan Handler, writing for the court, discussed a variety of federal court decisions indicating that Schmid might not be protected by the First Amendment. He went on to find, however, that the protections of Article I are "more sweeping in scope than the language of the First Amendment," and that Princeton's arrest of Schmid violated his state constitutional rights.
Schmid was fined $15 for trespassing and $10 court costs; the conviction was upheld in Superior Court, Trenton.
He was seeking an appeal to the state appellate division when the state's high court took the case on certification.