In March of 2005, Leslie Weise was ejected from a Town Hall meeting with the president because she arrived in a car with a bumper sticker that read, “No More Blood For Oil.” Were her First Amendment rights violated? ACLU senior counsel Chris Hansen argued just that in court. He explains.
The Killing Floor
Artist: by The Accidental
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In March of 2006, Leslie Weise obtained tickets from her local representative for an upcoming town hall meeting with then President George W. Bush in Denver, Colorado. She and a companion arrived for the meeting, a public event paid for with taxpayer dollars, driving a car with a bumper sticker that read, “No More Blood for Oil.” Five minutes after they were seated and before the President started his talk, they were unseated, without explanation, by White House event staffers. A few days later, Weise met with authorities in Colorado who told her the explanation for her ejection could be found on her bumper. The American Civil Liberties Union later filed suit against the White House event staffers who forcibly removed Ms. Weise and her companion, and just a couple of weeks ago lost the decision. A three-member panel of the Tenth Circuit Court voted two to one against the plaintiffs. ACLU senior counsel Chris Hansen argued the case.
CHRIS HANSEN: We argued that the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were violated, that the government can't discriminate on the basis of viewpoint; that is, it can't decide to only allow people to say yay and not to say nay, or vice versa. It can't allow only Republicans to speak and not Democrats, or vice versa. And this was an instance in which, it seemed to us, our plaintiffs were excluded from the event because of their viewpoint. And we thought that was about as basic a First Amendment violation as there could be, and so we sued.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, these guys didn't disrupt the event in any way?
CHRIS HANSEN: That's right, they didn't. First of all, they weren't allowed in the event for a long enough [LAUGHS] time that they could have disrupted but second, and more importantly, they weren't there to disrupt. They were there to listen quietly and respectfully to the President express his views on Social Security.
PRESIDENT BUSH: We appreciate you coming today. We're going to have a serious dialogue on Social Security. It’s an issue that requires a lot of dialogue and a lot of discussion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about the defendants. They include Michael Casper and several others who were White House event staffers at the town meeting that day in Denver and who participated in the decision to eject Ms. Weise and her companion from the hall. How did the lawyers who represented them argue their side?
CHRIS HANSEN: The defendants essentially argued that the law was not clearly established, that there was no First Amendment right to participate in a meeting and that, therefore, it was perfectly legitimate to be able to exclude people from the meeting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you say, it seems to be a very clear First Amendment issue. Why do you think you lost the case?
CHRIS HANSEN: Well, I think the matter has become confused in the last few years by a couple of Supreme Court decisions, most notably a case involving the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston. The question in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade case was whether the organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade could exclude gay marchers from their parade. And the Supreme Court ultimately said, yes, it’s their parade, they get to decide who marches in their parade. When you have a private entity that has gotten a space for its private use, they get to use it for whatever they want to, and they can exclude people, if they want to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if it’s a public street that they're using for their private use?
CHRIS HANSEN: Yes, even if it’s a public street. A Republican doesn't have the right to march in the Democratic parade and a Democrat doesn't have a right to march in the Republican parade. Similarly, if the president goes to speak at an occasion where he is the head of the party, like a fundraiser or a campaign rally, almost everybody agrees that in those instances it’s probably permissible for the president, as the head of the party, to exclude people from his event. The difference, though, is in this case the President was not speaking as head of the Republican Party, he was speaking as the President of the United States. And we think the President of the United States represents all of us. But presidents often try to control the nature of the message whenever they're speaking. They don't like having dissident views in the audience or along the parade route or along the motorcade route. And so, it’s relatively common for not only President Bush but prior presidents to try to control that. Up until this point, no court has ever allowed presidents to do that, and this is the first time, as far as we're aware, a court has suggested that that might be permissible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have there been any other cases along these lines? I seem to remember an offending tee-shirt at another President Bush event.
CHRIS HANSEN: There was, at the State Capitol in West Virginia. It was a Fourth of July rally, again, open to the public, again, paid for by taxpayers. Two clients, who I also represented, wore tee-shirts that had the red circle with the line through it, and the president’s name. They were arrested and held in jail for a couple of hours. We ultimately sued. The people involved in that case, in the case, settled for money damages.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did the Bush staffers in the current case know that Ms. Weise’s car had that bumper sticker?
CHRIS HANSEN: Good question, and the answer is we don't know. One of the peculiarities of modern constitutional law is that the defendants get to move to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity before any discovery takes place. And so, that’s what happened here, and we've never gotten any discovery, and we don't really know how the people at the White House knew about the bumper sticker.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where does the ACLU go from here?
CHRIS HANSEN: Well, we think the decision is wrong, and we have asked the entire Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to review the panel’s decision, in the hopes that the entire Court will overturn the panel’s decision. If that’s unsuccessful, then our next step is to decide whether to ask the United States Supreme Court to hear the case or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How good do you think your chances are there?
CHRIS HANSEN: Even the conservatives on the Supreme Court have been fairly strong supporters of free speech rights, and so we wouldn't take it to the Supreme Court unless we thought we had a shot at winning it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris, thank you very much.
CHRIS HANSEN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Hansen is senior national counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.