a classroom full of students writing

Judges tend to think pretty highly of themselves, and they don’t like to have their authority challenged. Many judges aren’t shy about handing out threats of “holding you in contempt.”

That means you have to follow the rules. A North Carolina man recently found this out the weird — or annoying — way when he was ordered to write an essay on the court system after violating rules about recording proceedings.

Back to School for You

Davin Eldridge runs the news site Trappalachia.com, which states as its mission: “Journalism at all costs. Truth by any means necessary. Liberty, Justice and a Voice for all.”

And Eldridge means it. Showing up to a Macon County, North Carolina courthouse, an officer working the metal detector warned Eldridge that he couldn’t use his recording inside the courtroom. Eldridge allegedly acknowledged the warning and did it anyway, streaming proceedings live to Facebook.

Judge William H. Coward held Eldridge in contempt and sentenced him to 30 days in prison. Coward would, however, suspend the sentence for 12 months if Eldridge met certain conditions, such as paying a court fine.

Also included in that sentence, however, was an order to write a 2,000-3,000-word essay on the subject of “Respect for the Court System is Essential to the Fair Administration of Justice.” Coward must then approve the essay, and Eldridge must publish it on social media without providing any negative comments or allowing negative comments on it.

Can the Judge Do That?

One may think that this order is a violation of Eldridge’s First Amendment rights, since he essentially cannot criticize the judge for a year. Of course, Eldridge may choose to write an essay disagreeing with the judge-assigned thesis, but it’s also fair to wonder whether Judge Coward approve of that.

But the North Carolina Court of Appeals sided with the judge, upholding the sentence in a December ruling. In a 2-1 decision, the court found that Eldridge displayed “questionable and intentional conduct,” and that Coward acted appropriately to prevent “further disruptions of the court” and “provide accountability without unduly infringing on his rights.”

Then-Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1964 that it is time to get rid of the “judge-invented and judge-maintained notion that judges can try criminal contempt cases without a jury.” But for now, it’s still “my house, my rules.”

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