Jim Porter: Secret Service agents sued by protesters
Today’s case arises out of an incident that occurred while President George W. Bush was campaigning for a second term.
A lawsuit was filed by a group of protesters who alleged that two Secret Service agents responsible for the President’s security unfairly trampled on their Constitutional rights.
GEORGE W. BUSH
On October 14, 2004, President George W. Bush was on the stump, scheduled to spend the evening at a cottage in Jacksonville, Ore.
Two different groups, one supporting the President and the other opposed to the President, had obtained permission to assemble on opposite sides of the motorcade street.
The President made a last-minute decision to stop for dinner at the Jacksonville Inn, halfway to his destination. The two groups moved down the street closer to the Inn, with the protesters directly in front of the Inn.
Secret Service agents then directed the protest group away from the Inn a block down the street. The agents said the relocation was necessary to ensure that no demonstrator would be “within handgun or explosive range of the President.”
After the President dined, the motorcade left the Inn and passed the President’s supporters leaving the protesters two blocks away from the motorcade route, beyond the President’s sight and hearing.
FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS
The protesters sued the Secret Service agents for damages in federal court in Oregon alleging that their First Amendment rights had been violated.
Specifically, they claimed the agents engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” moving the protesters away from the Inn, while allowing the supporters to remain.
The Federal Ninth Circuit found that the agents “sought to suppress the protesters’ political speech based on the viewpoint they expressed” … giving a “differential treatment” to the two groups of demonstrators. The agents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
WHITE HOUSE MANUAL
The key evidence offered by the protest group was an “actual but unwritten” Secret Service policy of working with President Bush to eliminate dissent and protest from Presidential appearances.
Their lawsuit included an excerpt from a White House manual instructing the President’s advance team 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.” Oops.
The agents defended the protesters’ lawsuit claiming they were entitled to qualified immunity.
The doctrine of Qualified Immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages unless the plaintiff pleads facts showing that the official violated a clearly established statutory or Constitutional right. The protesters argued they were “comparatively disadvantaged in expressing their views” to the President.
SUPREME COURT RULING
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Secret Service agents engaged in crowd control have no First Amendment obligation to ensure that groups with different viewpoints are at comparable locations at all times.
The agents acted to protect the President, not suppress free speech, and they were entitled to qualified immunity. Protesters’ suit dismissed. I concur.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno, Nevada. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.