Suppression of Speech at Polls Leads to Voter Suppression

Last week, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky:

The Supreme Court is being asked to review — and reject — a Minnesota election law that tramples free speech rights by forbidding voters from wearing anything to the polls that might be interpreted as even slightly political or ideological, even if it has no relation to any candidate, ballot measure, or political party. . . .  

The case targets Minnesota Statute 211B.11, which forbids voters from wearing any “political badge, political button, or other political insignia.”  Officials have interpreted this open-ended language to cover messages that merely express a general social or philosophical outlook.  As the government itself noted at oral argument, Minnesota’s broad political apparel ban encompasses any shirt with the logo of the Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO. 

“Minnesota has gone far beyond legitimate regulation and is now attempting to stifle the speech of voters of all ideological beliefs,” said PLF attorney Wen Fa.  “Instead of merely telling people they can’t wear campaign paraphernalia when they vote, the state’s sweeping restrictions can be used against any kind of apparel that reflects personal values, no matter how nonpolitical the message.  From unions to the Tea Party, this is a broad ban that threatens the free speech rights of everyone. . . ." "In these times when free speech enjoys scant support from bureaucrats and politicians as it is continually attacked throughout the nation, Minnesota’s political apparel ban is particularly dangerous,” added Andy Cilek.  “It empowers politicians with the authority to crush legitimate political expression with which they disagree.” 

Cilek and the MVA challenged the restrictions after Cilek became a victim of them.  When he attempted to vote in November, 2010, an election official ordered him to remove his “Don’t tread on me” shirt and his “Please I.D. Me” button (the latter reflecting the MVA’s support for voter-identification requirements, an issue that was not on the ballot).  After a substantial delay, he was eventually permitted to vote, but only after his name had been recorded for potential prosecution under the Minnesota law, which makes violations a criminal misdemeanor.

Full information on the case is available from PLF here, the cert petition is here, and you can track the Supreme Court's consideration of the petition here.  

This case is particularly important because it concerns not only the government's power to restrict voter speech at the polling place (which repressed speech by voters last fall) but also government officials' power to define statutory terms so broadly as to encompass nearly all speech.  This government overreach should be stopped, especially as this speech by voters does not meet any reasonable definition of electioneering and does not interfere with the peaceful and orderly administration of the election.  It is merely a tool for the government, and particularly individual government employees in the form of election workers at the polls, to selectively suppress speech.  And in this situation, suppressed speech also often means a suppressed vote.