"It'll be a dramatic change. It gives people the right to bring their grievances to the attention of foreign diplomats."
Congress enacted the law to shield foreign officials from insults, prevent violence at embassies and encourage other nations to provide similar security to U.S. diplomats.
Three protesters who wanted to picket the Soviet and Nicaraguan embassies challenged the law. They wanted to carry signs reading "Solidarity" and ''Release Sakharov" (the Soviet dissident) in front of the Soviet Embassy, and a sign reading "Stop the killing" in front of the Nicaraguan Embassy.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court majority, concluded that the law violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. It prohibited the display of any sign within 500 feet of a foreign embassy if the sign brought the government into "public disrepute," but it allowed friendly signs.
O'Connor acknowledged that the U.S. government has a "powerful" interest in protecting embassy workers. But she said that the ban too rigidly restricted political speech in a traditional public forum.
O'Connor's conclusions were supported by William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia. Scalia, one of the most conservative members, has consistently sided with the government in clashes between security and free speech.
The sign decision is the court's first reversal of Robert H. Bork, the former federal appeals judge rejected by the Senate for a seat on the high court last year.
Bork's lower court opinion upholding the sign provision drew support from Chief Justice William H. Rehquist and Associate Justices Byron R. White and Harry A. Blackmun.
Under the law that was struck down, thousands protesting South African racial policies and the treatment of Soviet Jews had been arrested in the last few years.
In a legal brief supporting the challenge, the American Jewish Congress said of the protesters arrested in front of the Soviet Embassy: "Had they gathered . . . to praise the Soviet Union's progress in medicine or agriculture, they would have been protected, not arrested, by the police."
As to the second part of the law, O'Connor wrote that because it allows police to disperse crowds only when they believe there is a threat to the security or the peace of the embassy, it is narrow enough to pass constitutional muster.
O'Connor wrote, "As we have noted, 'Where demonstrations turn violent, they lose their protected quality as expression under the First Amendment.' "