WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether all Americans, including the president's critics, have a right to attend his public speeches, or whether the White House retains the right to screen out dissenters.
While the current administration says it does not screen critics, the issue arose under President George W. Bush. His aides were accused of removing people who wore anti-Bush T-shirts or otherwise indicated that they were critics of the president.
In West Virginia, Jeff and Nicole Rank were handcuffed and taken away from a July 4, 2004, rally on the state Capitol grounds shortly before the president arrived. They had tickets to the event but wore homemade T-shirts with a line crossing out the word “Bush.” The government later paid $80,000 to settle their lawsuit.
But those who have taken their cases before judges have not fared as well.
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In March 2005, Leslie Weise and Alex Young were removed from their seats at a town hall meeting in Denver where Bush was due to speak about Social Security. They had obtained tickets from a Republican congressman and had passed through security.
“I had no idea why we were being thrown out. We were dressed professionally. And we hadn’t done anything,” said Weise, a clean-energy consultant from Boulder, Colo.
She soon learned why she was removed. Her car had a bumper sticker that said: “No More Blood for Oil” – a reference to the war in Iraq. A Secret Service official told her the next day that her bumper sticker had been reported, and the White House advance team had insisted on having her and Young removed before the president arrived.
“He was very apologetic, and said it was not the Secret Service policy, and it should not have happened ,” Weise said.
She and Young sued Michael Casper, the official with an earpiece and a lapel pin who ordered them out of their seats. He was not a Secret Service agent, but rather a government employee acting at the behest of two White House aides traveling with Bush.
Weise’s suit cited her right to free speech and argued that the First Amendment forbids the government, including the president, from excluding her from a public event simply because it disagrees with her views.
But a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver ruled there is no such right.
“President Bush had the right, at his own speech, to ensure that only his message was conveyed,” Judge Wiley Daniel said in dismissing her suit.
That decision was upheld in January by a sharply divided panel of the 10th Circuit Court. The majority said the First Amendment does not “prohibit the government from excluding” people from presidential events “based on their viewpoint.”
Dissenting Judge William J. Holloway said the “right of an American citizen to criticize public officials and policies” is at the heart of the First Amendment, and that it “is simply astounding that any member of the executive branch could have believed that our Constitution justified this egregious violation.”
The American Civil Liberties Union appealed Weise’s case and urged the Supreme Court to decide whether the Constitution “prohibits government officials who are speaking at events that are open to the public and paid for by the taxpayers from excluding people from the audience on the basis of viewpoint.”
The justices are due to vote in late September on whether to hear the case. If they do not, the appeals court ruling will stand.
Christopher Hansen, an ACLU lawyer, agreed his client would not have a case had she shouted a critical comment as the president spoke.
“You don’t a right to disrupt an event,” he said. “If this had been a Republican campaign rally, then of course, they can exclude people who are not Republicans.”
Hansen said he does not know whether the Obama White House screens critics from his public events but said, “We haven’t received complaints yet.”
Sean Gallagher, a Denver lawyer representing Casper, said his client works for the General Services Administration in Colorado and was in charge of event security the day the president spoke in Denver.
He said the White House advance team had been warned members of MoveOn.org might try to disrupt Bush’s speech, and they suspected Weise and Young might have been part of such a plan.
He said the Denver-based courts ruled correctly.
Weise said she is more troubled by the judicial rulings than by what happened in Denver five years ago.
“We wanted to make it clear this should not happen to people,” she said. “The president is the leader of all citizens of this country and should not be accessible only to those who agree with him on every issue.”