By a vote of 9-0, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against longtime Vandenberg Air Force Base peace protestor Dennis Apel (pictured), upholding the right of base brass to limit where, when, and if he could engage in free-speech activities on base property even if located outside Vandenberg’s enclosed area. The Department of Defense petitioned the Supreme Court to examine the issue after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled base commanders lacked the requisite legal authority to ban Apel from demonstrating on a public road just outside the Vandenberg base entrance on the technical grounds that the Air Force shared an easement with the County of Santa Barbara for the stretch of road in question and did not control the property outright.
In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court rejected the Ninth Circuit Court’s reasoning. “I was really disappointed,” Apel said. “I didn’t expect to win but I didn’t expect it to be 9 to 0 either.” Apel, who has been arrested 15 times for protesting in front of the base, said he doesn’t intend to stop now. Apel was barred from protesting even in the site designated by Vandenberg for such activities after he was found guilty of vandalism for spraying a syringe of his own blood on the Vandenberg entrance sign at the onset of the Iraq war.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor wrote a joint opinion concurring with Roberts, but the two suggested the real constitutional question posed by Apel was one of free speech. They stated that the government’s ability to limit free speech on military property that’s open to the public might be open to constitutional review. Apel said he now intends to file a First Amendment claim with the Ninth Circuit Court, challenging his trespassing conviction. “We always argued this was a free-speech issue,” he said. “Now we will.” Although the Ninth Circuit declined to comment on the free-speech aspects of his previous legal motions, Apel expressed confidence it would do so now.