USA high court to hear Minnesota political apparel case

Adjust Comment Print

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider guaranteeing the right of people to wear political T-shirts and buttons when they vote, accepting an appeal that could expand First Amendment rights at polling places.

The case is brought by Andy Cilek, a Minnesota voter and executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, who was temporarily blocked from voting because he was wearing a T-shirt that stated "Don't Tread on Me" at a polling place.

Appeals judges upheld the Minnesota law in 2013 and 2017, saying it helps maintain order in polling places. The case is Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky. Lower courts found that the law did not violate the Constitution, but the Minnesota groups that launched the legal battle are now hoping the country's highest court sees things differently.

Cilek sued, arguing that the law should be overturned because it violated his free speech rights and was too broad, requiring enforcement based on the subjective judgment by election officials about what types of messages have political overtones.

Minnesota Statute § 211B.11 prohibits wearing a "political badge, political button, or other political or about the polling place on primary or election day".

Voters who refused to remove political clothing are still allowed to vote, but election officials were told to record their name and address for potential misdemeanor prosecution, according to court records.

The group notes that the Supreme Court has endorsed bans on campaign-related speech at polling places, but claims some states have read that precedent as an "unqualified mandate to ban all speech under the guise of regulating elections".

After a federal district judge and an appeals court upheld the law, Cilek turned to the Supreme Court, arguing that Minnesota's suppression of political speech was a matter of national importance, particularly because nine other states similarly ban political apparel in and near the voting booths, including Texas.

"The state (of Minnesota) admitted that the ban applies not only to the Tea Party, but to groups like the Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO", he said.

It is one of three free speech cases the court put on its docket for early 2018. The button was a reference to a campaign for a photo ID law, and it included the website and phone number of a group called Election Integrity Watch.