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In Court Today: Protecting the Right to Protest the President

Kate Wood,
Fellow, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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March 21, 2012

People who disagree with the president have as much a right to be heard as those who wish to praise him. Today at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, the ACLU will be defending the free speech rights of presidential protestors who were discriminated against solely for the messages on their signs.

We filed this lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of several New Mexico residents and advocacy organizations who were made to stand more than 150 yards away from the site of a fundraiser being attended by then- President George W. Bush as they peacefully protested administration policies, while a group of Bush supporters were allowed to stand only a few feet from the fundraiser site.

The First Amendment means that the government cannot treat demonstrators differently solely because of their viewpoints. Yet the Bush White House had a policy that excluded Americans perceived to be critical of the administration from presidential public events. This clearly illegal policy was even laid out in the official Presidential Advance Manual, which includes a section called “Preparing for Demonstrators.” That section directed teams at the site of a presidential appearance to “work with the Secret Service and have them ask the local police department to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade route.”

In this case, the district court rightly denied the defendants (who are local and federal law enforcement officers) a judgment in their favor before a trial, and they are appealing. Officials went to great lengths to shield the president from viewing the people who disagreed with him. That simply isn’t how a free society should operate.

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