A lawyer for three women arrested during a demonstration outside the Russian Consulate in New York in support of the punk protest band Pussy Riot, is challenging an 1845 law that allowed his clients to be arrested for wearing balaclavas– ski masks–in support of the jailed Russian women.
“We believe this law is overly broad,” Norman Siegel, the lawyer for the three women, told the New York Times. “Political protest is a quintessential freedom of expression.”
Siegel’s clients–Rebekah Schiller, Esther Robinson and Rachel Weldon–were arrested in New York August 17 at a demonstration while awaiting the sentencing in Russia of the Pussy Riot band members.
The three women, along with many other protesters in the crowd, showed their support by wearing the same brightly colored balaclavas worn by the band during their performances.
The Pussy Riot members on trial in Moscow were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after the musical group performed a song critical of President Vladimir Putin inside a Russian Orthodox cathedral.
Schiller, Robinson and Weldon were charged with disorderly conduct as well as violating a provision in New York State’s loitering law that makes it unlawful for three or more people to wear masks in public, The Times reported.
Siegel is preparing to challenge the constitutionality of the law, which he argues should not be applied to his clients who were peaceful protesters.
He also contends that the balaclavas are a form of protected speech, and that the masks were vital to the message the woman were communicating, The Times reported.
Siegel’s clients appeared in court last week and told prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office that they planned to go to trial to fight the charges against them.
“The mask law, historically and currently, has caused people to conform to a certain way of delivering their speech. It’s not just what you’re saying but how you’re saying it that should be protected from interference by the government,” said Weldon in an interview with The Times.
The law was initially adopted during the Anti-Rent war that occurred in upstate New York, after angry tenant farmers dressed up as American Indians and attacked and killed their landlords.
The controversial mask regulation has been challenged in state and federal courts and appeals panels for more than ten years, but it is yet to be found unconstitutional. There are exceptions to the law for masquerade parties and similar events, The Times reported.
If Siegel succeeds in overturning the mask law, he could pave the way for other protest groups to not be subject to arrest for wearing masks.