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Justices reject lawsuit by protesters removed from Bush event

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • 2 were thrown out because of bumper sticker message
  • 2 justices wanted to hear case
  • Other presidents have faced protests at public events

Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court has turned aside a free speech dispute over a bumper sticker and a presidential event that had raised questions over the authority of the White House to keep dissenting voices at bay.

The justices Tuesday denied the appeal by two Colorado residents who were removed from a "town hall"-style meeting with President George W. Bush five years ago. White House advance team officials escorted the pair out -- despite them having valid invitations -- because of a bumper sticker on their car reading "No More Blood for Oil." The protesters then sued various individual government employees.

At issue was whether the government retains the discretion to screen and exclude anyone from public, taxpayer-funded events that the sponsor -- in this case the White House -- deems would be contrary to their own message.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they wanted to hear the case. "Ejecting them for holding discordant views could only have been a reprisal for the expression conveyed by the bumper sticker," wrote Ginsburg in dissent of denial of the petition.

Bush had come to a Denver museum in March 2005 to discuss Social Security reform. Admittance was limited to those with tickets. Leslie Weise and Alex Young, along with a friend, had received passes from their local Republican congressman, and said they were dressed "professionally." The three had cleared security, but according to their lawsuit, Weise and Young were singled out by security, told they had been "identified" and were warned against trying "any funny stuff."

After taking their seats -- but before Bush had begun talking -- the president's protective detail approached Weise and Young, who were escorted away without incident. Weise, a 45-year-old attorney and clean-energy consultant, said she was told by the Secret Service days later the reason for the removal was the bumper sticker on her green Saab vehicle.

"No American should be denied their Constitutional right to free speech because of a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, or any other peaceful expression of a viewpoint," Weise told CNN when the initial lawsuit was filed. "Our president is elected to represent and lead all Americans, and he should feel comfortable speaking with all of us at his town hall conversations."

Young is 31 and works in information technology. Both are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group obtained a redacted version of the President's Advance Manual, a 2002 official guide for planning presidential events. The ACLU says it spells out "deterring potential protesters from attending events," and establishing designated "protest zones," often placed some distance from where the president would be speaking.

The White House, U.S. Secret Service, and the individual employees sued have in the past declined to comment, saying it is still an active appeal.

A federal judge had dismissed the Weise-Young lawsuit, saying the government has some measure of control over who attends such events. "President Bush has the right, at his own speech, to ensure that only his message was conveyed," said Judge Wiley Daniel, a 1995 Clinton appointee who is African-American. A federal appeals court agreed, concluding the First Amendment does not "prohibit the government from excluding" those with opposing viewpoints.

Such viewpoint discretion has long been at the heart of efforts by office-holders and office-seekers to control the public discourse in the face of expected and actual protests.

Anti-war demonstrators repeatedly targeted Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon four decades ago. Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were often heckled by uninvited individuals and groups over the economy, nuclear weapons, and other hot-button topics. Many were removed under heavy resistance, often disrupting the events, and forcing some presidents to calm the crowd and steer the message back on track.

Presidents Bill Clinton in 1997, George W. Bush in 2005, and federal agencies faced separate lawsuits over efforts to keep protesters away from the inauguration parade route.

The ACLU said Bush staffers in particular have pushed the limits on restricting free speech by dissenters. Nicole and Jeff Rank, a husband and wife, were handcuffed, hauled away, and charged with trespassing at a July 4 Bush rally six years ago in Charleston, West Virginia. They had valid tickets to the event, but wore t-shirts with the word "Bush" crossed out in red. The ACLU filed suit, calling it "viewpoint discrimination," and court records show the case was settled by the government for $80,000.

Supporters of such restrictions say the 9/11 terrorist attacks have increased the need for security, especially for the president, federal lawmakers, and administration and military officials. They say it is often hard to tell when a small, even non-verbal protest, can escalate into a serious situation that could endanger the president and members of the audience.

The majority of justices in the Denver case offered no explanation for refusing to intervene now in the case. Ginsburg noted other lawsuits against those responsible for Weise's and Young's ouster are pending.

The justice said she believed the fact those who escorted the pair out were White House volunteers was the reason the high court decided not to get involved.

"I cannot see how reasonable public officials, or any staff or volunteers under their direction, could have viewed the bumper sticker as a permissible reason for depriving Weise and Young of access to the event."

The current dispute is one of several high profile free speech cases the justices will tackle this term. A Kansas church seeks the right to promote their provocative message against homosexuality at the private funerals of soldiers killed in war. The father of a Marine who died in Iraq sued the vocal members of the Westboro Baptist Church for defamation and invasion of privacy. The group said it is exercising their protected constitutional rights on public property. Oral arguments in that case were heard last week.

Another case deals with California's effort to ban the sale of "violent" video games to children, citing their role as consumer protector. The gaming industry says that violates their rights of free expression, and amounts to selective censorship. That case will be heard in November.

The Bush protest case is Weise v. Casper (10-67).

From Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer