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A Win For Protesters’ Rights

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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February 22, 2011

Today a federal district court judge in New Mexico handed down a great ruling for protesters’ rights. Some background is in order: All throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, we at the ACLU received complaints from protesters. Time and again, we heard that those wishing to protest against President Bush’s policies, particularly the war in Iraq, were forced to protest far away from him, or behind buildings, or in other places where they would not be seen or heard, while the president’s supporters were allowed to stand with their signs where they would be fully visible both to the president and his accompanying media entourage.

Photos from the protest.

In 2007, President Bush traveled to the Albuquerque area to attend a fundraiser. Our clients, individuals and members of two peace organizations wishing to protest the president’s policies, were forced to stand 150 yards away from the president’s motorcade route, behind officers on horseback, where the president could not possibly see them. Meanwhile, a group of Bush supporters were permitted to stand directly alongside the motorcade route, where their sign, which stated “God Bless George Bush! We pray for you,” was in plain sight. The anti-Bush demonstrators were understandably upset that their rare chance to convey their displeasure directly to the president had been squelched.

The ACLU and ACLU of New Mexico took the case. We argued that this discriminatory treatment violated the First Amendment right to free speech. More specifically, we contended that it was a form of viewpoint discrimination. The Supreme Court has written that “the First Amendment forbids the government to regulate speech in ways that favor some viewpoints or ideas at the expense of others.” That is what happened when our clients’ messages criticizing the president were blocked while the pro-Bush supporters were allowed to express their views unimpeded. Some of the defendants in the case — a Secret Service agent and a couple of officers from the sheriff’s department — asked the judge to terminate our case before it reached a jury.

Today, the district court held that our clients’ case deserves to move forward. It held that “First Amendment law forbidding viewpoint-based restrictions on speech was…clearly established at the time of the event and would put a reasonable official on notice that disparate treatment of protesters based on their viewpoint was unlawful.” After devoting 20 pages to carefully reviewing the facts, it concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that law enforcement engaged in viewpoint discrimination.

The case is not over. To win, we will need to convince a jury to believe our clients’ story of what happened rather than law enforcement’s version. Also, it is possible the defendants will try to appeal at this point. However, today’s decision is an important one not just to vindicate the rights of the clients in this case, but to bring home once again that where the rare opportunity arises to express our views directly to our most powerful officials, we all have an equal right to do so, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with them

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