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Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Secret Service In Free Speech Case

A 2004 case involving the Secret Service made its way to the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Demonstrators wanted to sue for being moved away from then-President George W. Bush.
Charles Dharapak
A 2004 case involving the Secret Service made its way to the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Demonstrators wanted to sue for being moved away from then-President George W. Bush.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in a favor of Secret Service agents in a free speech case involving President George W. Bush.

The case is this: During Bush's campaign for a second term, he showed up at a restaurant in Jacksonville, Ore. Anti-Bush protesters as well as supporters showed up. Fifteen minutes after Bush decided to sit in the patio of the restaurant, the Secret Service asked police to move the anti-Bush protesters away from the restaurant and out of sight of the president.

Anti-Bush protesters sued the Secret Service agents, and the case moved through the lower courts, with the 9th Circuit agreeing that the agents lost their immunity against lawsuits because they acted unconstitutionally.

In a rare unanimous decision, the court reversed that judgment saying the Secret Service agents deserved immunity.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion, in which she said the Secret Service agents — logically — moved anti-Bush protesters away from the president because they were within "weapons reach" of President Bush. The supporters, however, were being blocked from the outdoor patio by the building itself.

Ginsburg concludes:

"We emphasize, again, that the protesters were at least as close to the President as were the supporters when the motorcade arrived at the Jacksonville Inn. See supra, at 5. And as the map attached to the complaint shows, see supra, at 4, when the President reached the patio to dine, the protesters, but not the supporters, were within weapons range of his location. See supra, at 14. Given that situation, the protesters cannot plausibly urge that the agents 'had no valid security reason to request or order the[ir] eviction.' App. to Pet. for Cert. 186a.

"We note, moreover, that individual government officials 'cannot be held liable' in a Bivens suit 'unless they themselves acted [unconstitutionally].' Iqbal, 556 U. S., at 683. We therefore decline to infer from alleged instances of misconduct on the part of particular agents an unwritten policy of the Secret Service to suppress disfavored expression, and then to attribute that supposed policy to all field-level operatives."

NPR's Nina Totenberg previewed the case here.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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