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Court Silences Political Speech…For Now

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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November 13, 2008

We just lost — for the moment, at least — an important court case about the right to protest. In 2005, Leslie Weise and Alex Young were removed from one of President Bush’s speeches. The speech was open to the public and funded by taxpayers. The lawsuit charges that they were ejected because they arrived in a car with a bumper sticker that said, “no more blood for oil.”

The ACLU filed suit on their behalf, arguing that Leslie and Alex were kicked out solely because they disagreed with the President. We reasoned that, if the First Amendment stands for anything, it’s that the government cannot punish people because of their political views.

This is the sort of case that we do not expect to lose. It seems obvious that when the President gives a speech on the taxpayer’s dime and invites everyone to come, he can’t then weed out people he doesn’t like because of what they believe.

The district court in Colorado did not find it so obvious. The court wrote that Leslie and Alex’s “complaint is essentially that they were not permitted to participate in the President’s speech. President Bush had the right, at his own speech, to ensure that only his message was conveyed.” The court dismissed Leslie and Alex’s case.

We believe this decision is wrong. Leslie and Alex did not want to speak at the President’s event. They weren’t trying to stand up on the stage with him. They just wanted to listen to his message.

What the court seems to be suggesting is that when the President speaks, the audience is part of his message. The President has the right to surround himself by adoring supporters, and to exclude all of those who may not agree with him. Why the President might wish to do this is clear: so that when the nightly news broadcasts images of the event, he is surrounded by supporters, not those who vigorously question his policy choices.

This can’t be the law. If this is the law, then those who attend Presidential speeches are not audience members in the traditional sense, but are more like extras on a movie set. They are cast there to play a particular role, namely to support the President. This is a far cry from the notion of open, public debate as we’ve always understood it.

It is likely that Leslie and Alex will appeal this decision.

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