TRI in the News

Civil Libertarians Stunned at Poll Center Dress Code

October 17, 2008

From WorldNetDaily
Original article available here.

Civil liberatarians have been stunned by an announcement by Virginia officials that there will be a dress code at polling locations on Nov. 4, a move that will "most likely affect the right to vote."

Now John W. Whitehead, the chief of the Rutherford Institute, which pursues issues involving freedom and rights, has written to the state Board of Elections seeking a policy change.

"If you will not stand for the people of this commonwealth, we will," he said.

The state Board of Elections recently adopted a policy that provides, among other restrictions: "No person shall be allowed to show, display, or exhibit any material, object, item, advertisement, or piece of apparel, which has the purpose of expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate."

Thus, T-shirts, pins, buttons and other "apparel" on behalf of a candidate is banned.

The policy, Whitehead said, has pitted the state board "against the ideals of free expression embodied in the United States and Virginia Constitutions."

"Thomas Jefferson understood that the first duty of government is to protect the freedom of expression," said Whitehead. "Regrettably, the State Board of Elections shirked this important civic duty when it adopted what essentially amounts to a dress code policy. This policy not only undermines the First Amendment right to free speech but will most likely affect the right to vote."

The ban on displaying political messages on apparel at polling places was proposed and approved at the Oct. 14 meeting of the Virginia State Board of Elections. Since its passage, the Rutherford Institute, along with other civil liberties advocates in the state, has voiced concerns that the policy's language is overly vague, which could very well result in local officials across the state gagging free speech and/or disenfranchising Virginia voters.

While courts have recognized that states may regulate speech in and around polling places in order to protect the right of persons to vote freely for the candidate of their choice, and to protect against fraud and preserve the integrity of the voting process, the Virginia policy goes much further, he said.

In his letter to Jean Cunningham, chairman of the SBE, Whitehead said, "This statutory attempt to protect voters from political harassment is a far cry from doing away with free speech altogether, especially the kind of passive political expression exhibited on apparel, buttons or other paraphernalia that is now being targeted for censorship by the SBE."

Whitehead said his institute already has been contacted by numerous individuals who are concerned that if they choose to exercise their constitutionally protected rights of the freedom of speech and expression, they will be denied the right to vote.

"Political speech is essential to and is the essence of self-government," Whitehead said. "It is for this reason that the protections afforded to expression under the law have the fullest and most urgent application to speech that relate to politics. In no way does passive political speech as expressed on clothing, buttons, stickers or other paraphernalia threaten the order of polling places or the freedom of other voters to cast their ballots according to the conscience," he said.

Whitehead said absent a response or a change in the policy by Monday means he would consider other options "legal or otherwise."

WND previously reported Missouri state law-enforcement officials supporting Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama were threatening those connected to campaign ads that appeared to be false or misleading, according to their interpretation.

Gov. Matt Blunt likened the intimidation to "police state tactics."

"What Senator Obama and his helpers are doing is scandalous beyond words, the party that claims to be the party of Thomas Jefferson is abusing the justice system and offices of public trust to silence political criticism with threats of prosecution and criminal punishment," he said.