Commentary: In Santa Maria, America has lost something precious


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Commentary: In Santa Maria, America has lost something precious

When court ended Tuesday at the Michael Jackson child molestation trial, I headed for a North Broadway restaurant where I was the dinner speaker at the Santa Maria Kiwanis Club meeting.

Most of the members seemed interested in my take on the trial and wanted to know how things were going. So I told them a little something about the courtroom scene that most of them seemed stunned to hear.

Judge Rodney Melville has stopped free speech, I said.

Earlier that day I told the same story to the NBC vice president of entertainment who had accompanied Tonight Show host Jay Leno to the trial, where the celebrity comedian took the witness stand.

The corporate VP from Los Angeles seemed perplexed when I said that members of the public are forbidden from talking to members of the press or special guests of the court even before court starts.

One of California's leading First Amendment attorneys with whom I shared the tale a few months ago also seemed miffed. Shaking her head in dismay, she explained that few options exist to change this judicial policy that I've been railing about for months.

Even some of my cohorts at the courthouse have tired of my tirades.

And some have simply caved in.

They no longer defend free speech.

Yet, as long as all people who sit in the public seats at the Jackson trial continue to be held as POWs - prisoners of words - America has lost something precious here in Santa Maria.

Back at the Kiwanis Club meeting, I explained how Melville has installed a caste system in court that rivals something you would find in a banana republic dictatorship.

Club members could easily relate to this public scandal since we started the meeting by pledging allegiance to the flag and with a rousing rendition of "God Bless America."

Here's how Melville's caste system works: Each morning before court begins, the bailiff explains the rules of the courtroom and specifies the people to whom we can talk and the people to whom we are forbidden to speak.

The media can speak "amongst themselves," the bailiff says.

Special guests of the court also can only speak amongst themselves.

These VIPs are people with connections that grant them special access to the courtroom without waiting in line with people who lack special connections. The VIPs wear special badges, sit in the front rows and are usually ushered into the courtroom by a court officer.

One such VIP told me in the men's room one day that he got special treatment because his wife works with Melville's wife.

Then there are the peasants - average taxpayers and international visitors to Santa Maria who must show up early and be lucky enough to win a seat in a lottery in order to be allowed into this public trial in a public building paid for by public tax dollars.

They, too, can talk only "amongst themselves," the bailiff says.

Talking between castes is strictly prohibited under threat of removal from the courtroom.

We castaways obey.

Nobody blames the bailiff, either, who's a good person and a hard worker who serves as a messenger for Melville's unjust policy. Anybody who values free speech blames Melville.

The caste system is one reason why two of my most respected colleagues recently engaged in a silent protest. When Melville entered the courtroom, they refused to stand. With all the people rising around these two gutsy seated journalists, Melville probably missed this act of sacred defiance carried out in support of everyone's freedom.

I told the Kiwanis that I resented feeling like I was living in Cuba. I've been to Havana and don't approve of any government's crackdown on civil liberties.

A few weeks ago, an older man sitting behind me in court leaned over and started to tell me that he and his wife read The Santa Maria Times and appreciate our commitment to the Jackson trial.

I cut him off with a finger to my lips and the curt look of a border guard.

Then I smoldered.

Walking to the back of the room, I asked a deputy if he would please apologize to the man for me. I didn't want anyone to think I was so rude. Seeing the absurdity of the situation, the deputy gave me special permission to speak.

Melville has issued a repressive order that encompass the letter of the law but not the soaring spirit of this nation.

Maybe I'll stay seated the next time the judge enters the courtroom.

That'll give the Kiwanis something to talk about at their next meeting.

* Steve Corbett's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 739-2215 or e-mailed at Read Corbett online at

May 26, 2005