Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Banning Political Clothing at Polling Places

An attendee wears a “DON’T TREAD ON ME” shirt during a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson at the Sharonville Convention Center, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Overly broad state laws that ban wearing political messages inside polling places are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 7-2 decision struck down a century-old Minnesota law that was challenged by a voter temporarily turned away for wearing a Tea Party shirt and a “Please I.D. Me” button. During oral argument in February, state officials said the law had not been challenged until now.

Chief Justice John Roberts issued the court’s opinion, calling the state’s effort to make polling places less clamorous admirable. But unlike some other states, including California and Texas, he said, “Minnesota has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented, saying Minnesota’s highest court should have an opportunity to weigh in first. Sotomayor had expressed support for the state law during oral argument in February, noting some people viewed “Please I.D. Me” as a “highly charged political message … intended to intimidate people to leave the polling booth.”

All 50 states regulate campaign advocacy in and around polling places for reasons most of the justices readily defended during oral argument. But only 10 states extend the prohibition to virtually anything deemed political.

Federal district and appeals courts dismissed the complaints from Andrew Cilek and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, but the Supreme Court has been protective of free speech rights even when it disagrees with the message.

Several justices had expressed concern about how to draw a line between banned and acceptable messages. A majority agreed that the right to vote deserves a little peace and quiet; the issue was, how much?

“We see no basis for rejecting Minnesota’s determination that some forms of advocacy should be excluded from the polling place,” Roberts said. “In light of the special purpose of the polling place itself, Minnesota may choose to prohibit certain apparel there because of the message it conveys, so that voters may focus on the important decisions immediately at hand.”

The problem, Roberts said, is that Minnesota’s prohibition doesn’t specify what’s allowed and what isn’t, leaving too much up to the whim of temporary polling place officials. The state bans “issue-oriented material” as well as “material promoting a group with recognizable political views.”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Richard Wolf