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SCOTUS: Protecting Voters from Government First Amendment Abuses

June 14, 2018

 

UPDATE, June 14, 2018:  The United States Supreme Court today held in a 7-2 vote that Minnesota's ban against voters wearing any clothing that might be deemed "political" in the eyes of a local poll worker is unconstitutional - a clear victory for voter expression and protection of access to the ballot box.  SLF submitted an important amicus brief in this case, based on its case in Georgia outlined below.

 

Click here for the U.S. Supreme Court decision

 

WASHINGTON, DC (Jan. 12, 2018):  SLF today filed a critical amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court defending the First Amendment rights of voters against state laws that ban any clothing that might be deemed "political" in the eyes of local poll workers - to the extent that the ballot can be denied (Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, et al.)

 

Joined by Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Mississippi Justice Institute, SLF argues that overbroad state laws clearly violate First Amendment speech protections and can deny the most fundamental right of all - voting - based on opinions.

 

Several years ago, SLF client and Georgia resident Bundy Cobb was turned away from the polling place and denied his right to vote unless he removed his NRA Instructor hat.   He was told that the NRA Instructor hat he was wearing was "political," and that by wearing the hat, he was “campaigning."  Thus, if he refused to remove the hat, he would have been subject to both civil and criminal penalties.  Believing it was his duty as an American (and veteran) to vote, he reluctantly removed his hat and cast his ballot. 

 

However, knowing his First Amendment rights were violated and wanting to ensure that no one else faced such discrimination, Mr. Cobb filed suit.  Douglas County, Georgia quickly issued a formal apology to Mr. Cobb and amended their electioneering law to prohibit the wearing of items at the polling place that reference only a candidate on the ballot, an issue or question on the ballot, or a political party on the ballot.  And, even further, as a direct result of Mr. Cobb’s lawsuit, the Georgia General Assembly took a close look at Georgia’s electioneering law and amended the definition of “campaign materials” to similarly only extend to a candidate, referendum, or political party on the ballot. 

 

Scenarios similar to Mr. Cobb’s happen every single election all over our country.  Election officials hide behind overbroad and vague electioneering statutes and definitions of campaign material that conceivably ban clothing that references anything because these days everything is deemed “political.”  And when challenged, the majority of states and local governments dig in their heels rather than recognize, as both Douglas County and the State of Georgia did, that they are obligated to uphold the Constitution – not offend it.

 

Minnesota is just one of those states.  It currently prohibits all clothing that may be deemed “political” from being worn within 100 feet of all polling places for the entirety of voting (nearly 50 days).  A group of voters challenged the Minnesota statute and, applying the incorrect constitutional test, the Eighth Circuit of Appeals upheld the statute.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The outcome of this case cannot be understated.  It will determine not only what you can wear (or be stopped from wearing) at the polls, but is expected to have wide-reaching implications for our First Amendment rights. 

 

Click here for SCOTUS brief in Minnesota Voters Alliance

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