On Thursday afternoon at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Lt. Dan Choi was convicted and fined $100 for “failure to obey” in conjunction with a November 2010 protest of the since-repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy outside the White House. He faced a penalty of up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $5,000.
“I am part of a global civil rights and human rights movement,” Choi declared shortly before his conviction. He spoke in favor of non-violent civil disobedience as a form of free speech: “I feel that the First Amendment is on trial today.”
The trial, which began in August 2011, ended Thursday after Choi spent six hours questioning witnesses and providing arguments on his own behalf. Roughly 100 LGBTQ and civil rights activists and supporters came for the trial, and there were reports on-site that roughly 30 people were shut out of the packed courtroom.
Choi asked his first witness, the Reverend C.T. Vivian, a close associate of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., what King would have thought of the trial. “He would think it was the natural follow-up of what we have already done,” said Vivian. “Martin would understand what you [Choi] do and what you’re doing. We do what the law requires, but we’re out changing it for a higher purpose.”
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Choi also questioned Staff Sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom, who, like Choi, was discharged from the military under DADT. She had earlier pled guilty for her arrest at a White House protest. “My conscience and my heart still aches,” she said, explaining that she wished she could revoke her guilty plea and, like Choi, have a trial.
Choi was visibly emotional through many portions of the trial. Before a recess break, a Rachel Maddow Show segment from September 2009 that featured Choi shortly after he was discharged from the military for “coming out” as gay was played for the courtroom. As Choi watched himself say on-screen, “I believe that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is wrong,” he wept and asked to rest his case.
Contending that Choi had failed to obey a lawful order, the prosecution gave closing arguments that included the need to “maintain the public’s view of the White House” and ensure tourists get a “picture-perfect photo of the White House.”
Choi went over his 30-minute time limit for closing arguments, speaking about free speech and freedom. “It is freedom to love that beckons us to fully understand the color of the law,” he said. “But it is moreover the responsibility to love that keeps me going … I believe the White House sidewalk is a free-speech zone.”
To end Choi’s arguments, Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola invited Ben-Shalom to speak privately with Choi. She stood with her arm wrapped around him as the guilty verdict was read. Saying he refused to pay the fine, Choi exited the courtroom to the applause of his supporters who had stayed for the day.
Choi has indicated a desire to re-enlist in the military.