Justices Take Up Ban on Political Clothing at Polls

(CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to resolve a circuit split and hear a free-speech challenge to a Minnesota law banning all political apparel at polling places.

Minnesota Voters Alliance and other groups sued Minnesota’s secretary of state and election officials over a state law prohibiting the wearing of political clothing at voting locations.

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

State election officials issued a policy citing examples of political apparel, including “issue oriented material designed to influence or impact voting” and “material promoting a group with recognizable political views.”

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.

Minnesota Voters Alliance and its co-plaintiffs, including Election Integrity Watch, claim the law violates the First Amendment and their equal-protection rights due to selective enforcement.

A federal judge in Minnesota ruled for the state, granting summary judgment on the voter groups’ as-applied First Amendment claim after previously dismissing their equal protection and facial First Amendment claims.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed in February, finding the law “viewpoint neutral and facially reasonable.”

“[Election Integrity Watch] argues the statute as applied to Tea Party apparel is not reasonable because the Tea Party is not a political party in Minnesota, does not endorse candidates or ballot issues, and its materials do not relate to anything on the ballot. EIW asserts that the apparel conveys only a philosophy, not an endorsement of particular candidates, ballot measures, or political parties,” Judge William Benton wrote for a three-judge panel. “Even if Tea Party apparel is not election-related, it is not unreasonable to prohibit it in a polling place.”

Benton continued, “In order to ensure a neutral, influence-free polling place, all political material is banned. To demonstrate that the Tea Party is political, Minnesota provided polling data and media coverage supporting the public perception that the Tea Party is political. It also noted that as of July 2010, the Tea Party was a recognized caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. EIW offers nothing to rebut this evidence that the Tea Party has recognizable political views.”

The voter groups appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in May, arguing in a petition for writ of certiorari that the Eighth Circuit’s decision is at odds with rulings from other federal appeals courts.

“The Fourth and Seventh Circuits recognize that, regardless of location, a total ban on all speech the government deems ‘political,’ without any limiting principle, violates the First Amendment’s overbreadth doctrine. The reasoning of those decisions would plainly invalidate the political apparel ban,” the petition states. “Resolution of the question presented is a matter of tremendous nationwide importance. Nine other states have nearly identical political apparel bans, and respondents candidly acknowledge that every state in the Union has created ‘speech-free zones.’”

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Per their custom, the justices did not comment on the decision to take it up.

%d bloggers like this: