A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

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Pussy Riot, Masks, and Free Speech

A protester holds a placard of pictures of people wearing balaclavas, in the style of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot

By Mike Brancheau

In the spring of this year, three members of the Russian feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with hooliganism following a staged anti-Putin performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The band’s protest was aimed at the Russian Orthodox Church leader’s support for Vladimir Putin and was noteworthy for its excess of Russian expletives and the colorful balaclavas that covered the band members’ faces.

In August, the Pussy Riot members were sentenced to “two years deprivation of liberty in a penal colony” by a Russian judge. The harsh sentence was met with passionate international criticism for infringing on freedom of expression and sparked protests around the world.

One such protest took place on August 17 in New York City. To show their support for the members of Pussy Riot, a large crowd of demonstrators gathered outside of the Russian Consulate, many wearing the by then iconic balaclavas.

It’s the balaclavas that got them in trouble.

Three female protestors were arrested and charged with violating certain provisions of New York’s loitering statute, which makes it unlawful for three or more people wearing masks to gather in public for a demonstration or protest.

On November 21, The New York Times reported on the defendants’ upcoming challenge to New York’s anti-mask law. The article explained that the defendants are asking for the charges to be dismissed because the statute is unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and is a violation of the free speech provision of the New York State Constitution.

The reporter noted that this was not the first time the anti-mask law was debated in court and discussed two prior legal challenges. Missing, though, was an analysis of how these cases might affect the fate of the New York Pussy Riot Protestors. Missing until now…

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