By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The free-speech right to protest against the president does not guarantee that opponents can be as close to the chief executive as supporters, the Supreme Court said Tuesday, throwing out a suit brought by critics of former President George W. Bush.
Instead, the justices said Secret Service agents have broad authority to protect the chief executive, and this includes forcibly removing groups of protesters who might threaten his safety.
The decision is one of several in which the high court has turned away claims that the Bush White House maintained an “unwritten” policy of using the Secret Service to keep protesters away from the president when he appeared in public.
In Tuesday’s opinion for a unanimous court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said nothing in the law would forbid Secret Service agents from acting quickly to move people who could be seen as threatening.
The decision tosses out a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union over an incident outside a restaurant in Jacksonville, Ore., in the fall of 2004. Bush was in the area campaigning for re-election and decided to stop for dinner at an outdoor restaurant a few blocks from where he would spend the night.
Two groups had assembled. One was made up of supporters, and a second group, numbering about 200, were opponents who carried signs critical of Bush and his policies. When the president sat down in the dining area, the protesters could be heard from just a half-block away. Secret Service agents decided to move the group of opponents two blocks away. This removed a potential threat from someone firing a gun or tossing an explosive, the agents said later.
But the group of supporters stayed nearby, and they could be seen by the president as his motorcade left the restaurant.
Several of the protesters joined a lawsuit against the Secret Service, alleging agents violated the 1st Amendment by denying them “equal access to the president.”
A federal judge in Oregon and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco cleared the suit to proceed. Those judges said the agents had placed the protesters at a “comparative disadvantage in expressing their views.”
But the Supreme Court disagreed in a case called Wood vs. Moss and said agents had violated no clearly understood constitutional right.
“No decision of which we are aware would alert Secret Service agents engaged in crowd control that they bear a 1st Amendment obligation to ensure that groups with different viewpoints are at comparable locations at all times,” Ginsburg said.
Two years ago, the court also threw out a lawsuit brought by a Colorado man who was arrested by Secret Service agents for confronting and criticizing Vice President Dick Cheney on a Denver street.
AFP Photo/Karen Bleier