WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a First Amendment case challenging a Minnesota law that bans political speech on any “badge, button, shirt, or hat” worn at election polling stations. Under the law, popular buttons or stickers that read, “I Voted,” context-less images such as a marijuana leaf, and even iconic photographs of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or John Lennon that could be classified as “political” and prohibited at polling places. Insisting that the Minnesota law opens the door to abuse of voters’ free speech rights by giving appointed election officials unlimited discretion to determine what political speech should be censored, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners (Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, and The Individual Rights Foundation) filed an amicus brief in Minnesota Majority v. Joe Mansky asking the Court to strike down the law as overbroad, unconstitutional, and “a sweeping prohibition of core First Amendment speech.”
“The polling site is one of the few remaining places where citizens can effectively voice their discontent with their government,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Shutting down this traditional forum for expression threatens the very democratic principles that this nation was founded on, and undermines the purpose of the First Amendment. In order to preserve the integrity of the First Amendment and the polling place, it is our hope that the high court will invalidate the statute as a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech.”
In 2010, legislators in Minnesota revised its election law to include a ban on the wearing of any apparel that included “political” speech at polling places. Minnesota Statute § 211B.11 grants unelected and unaccountable polling judges the power to prevent voters from wearing any “political badges, political buttons, or other political insignia…at or about the polling place on primary or election day.” In response to the state’s attempt to stifle speech at polling places, Minnesota Voters Alliance and several other voters’ rights groups filed a lawsuit requesting an injunction to stop the law from taking effect ahead of the upcoming election. The requested injunction was denied, and the law went into effect as scheduled.
On Election Day, several registered voters were specifically threatened with prosecution or were told to remove clothing items or buttons that read “Please I.D. Me” or had Tea Party logos, and an untold number of other voters were deterred from wearing such items in the first place on the threat of prosecution. Following the election, the District Court dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the statute was not unconstitutional on its face. The voters’ rights groups appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed part of the decision but returned the case to the District Court to decide if the law was invalid as applied to some speech. After the District Court and Court of Appeals ruled the law was valid, the voters’ rights groups filed a petition in June 2017 asking the Supreme Court to review the law. In weighing in on the case in support of the voters’ rights groups, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argued that the law invites the targeted suppression of minority viewpoints and undermines the core objective of the First Amendment.