Bumper sticker injustice

Posted: Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Adding indifference to injury, the Supreme Court last week refused to hear the appeal of a woman who was ejected from a speech by President George W. Bush because she had an antiwar bumper sticker on her car. The case would have provided the court the opportunity to rule that citizens who pose no threat of disruption may not be barred from presidential events that are advertised as open to the public.

In 2005, Leslie Weise and Alex Young obtained tickets for a Bush town hall meeting on Social Security held in Denver. But they were ordered to leave because a bumper sticker on Weise's car read "No More Blood for Oil." Weise and Young subsequently sued two volunteers at the event who, they argued, had ejected them at the behest of White House aides.

Unlike, say, a Rose Garden signing ceremony to which only supporters of the legislation are invited, the Bush event was ostensibly open to anyone with a ticket. Nevertheless, Weise was ordered to leave simply because of the message on her bumper sticker. This obvious discrimination on the basis of viewpoint was justified by a federal appeals court on the grounds that the plaintiffs weren't speakers at the event but attendees, and that agents of the government didn't remove the bumper sticker.

This naive misreading of the free-speech issue at the heart of the case cried out for reversal by the Supreme Court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented from the decision not to hear the case, wrote that it's well established that the government "may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests." Quite simply, Weise was punished for her beliefs and put on notice that criticizing the government could result in her exclusion from similar public events in the future.

In their dissent, Ginsburg and Sotomayor expressed the hope that their colleagues chose to sidestep the case not because they agreed with the lower court's First Amendment analysis but because the defendants were volunteers who might enjoy immunity under a federal statute. The two dissenters noted that separate suits against the government officials who are accused of orchestrating the ejection are still pending.

One of those suits might serve as a vehicle for a definitive decision by the court. That ruling should affirm that when the president invites the public to hear him speak, he can't pick and choose his listeners on the basis of their opinions.

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