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Courting Disaster: The Weise v Casper Decision

February 3, 2010

A collapsing economy. A massive earthquake in the long-suffering country of Haiti. The Supreme Court inviting corporations to control our elections. Health care “reform” turned into a gigantic gift to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. With all this in the current news cycle, why should we turn our attention to a court case in Colorado that seems to be about—bumper stickers?

On January 27, the United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, ruled on Weise v Casper. This case, which got little mainstream media attention, is actually a significant First Amendment case that was brought into court with the help of the ACLU. It addresses one of the many staggering violations of citizens’ rights to free speech that occurred during the last decade.

In 2005, George W. Bush gave a speech at a museum in Colorado. It was a public event, funded by the government. But as usual, the Bush White House vetted the audience. Even though the tickets were supposedly handed out on a first-come first-served basis, Secret Service agents turned away audience members who might possibly disagree with Bush’s speech. Anyone who ever attempted to attend a George W. Bush event during his presidency is thoroughly familiar with this “perimeter of protection.” It denied not only protesters but any non-conservatives the right to hear their president speak—while all taxpayers footed the bill for the appearances.

At the museum event, Leslie Weise and Alex Young, who’d been given their tickets by their congressional representative, were kicked out before the speech started. Alex Young was physically dragged from the building, and Leslie Weise was “escorted” out after him. Why? Because Secret Service agents noticed that they’d arrived in a car with a ‘No More Blood for Oil” bumper sticker on it. And now a federal appeals court has said that there’s no problem with that treatment.

Never mind that a similar case, involving a protester’s sign during the Vietnam War era, came to a completely different conclusion because, the court said, the sign represented the protester’s own views and therefore “was entitled to the greatest constitutional protection.” This decision also ignores another groundbreaking case, New York Times v Sullivan, in which the court stated, “The right of an American citizen to criticize public officials and policies and to advocate peacefully ideas for change is the central meaning of the First Amendment.” And while we’re at it, let’s shove aside dozens of other rulings in the past 30 years that have consistently protected free speech in this country.

The 10th Circuit Court knows better. It has now decided that the bumper sticker was immaterial; that Weise and Young did not have any “inherent right” to hear their president speak; and that the Secret Service had the right to throw them out of the museum because, even though it was a public event, it was held on private property. Plus (where have you heard this argument before?) the Secret Service agents were just following orders.

One judge on the case, William Holloway, was so appalled by the majority decision that he wrote an unusually blunt dissenting opinion. In it, he pointed out that Weise and Young had gotten their tickets openly, had not done anything to disrupt the event or even indicate that they planned to disrupt it—that their sole “crime” was that they made it plain via a bumper sticker that they disagreed with Bush’s policies.

First Holloway slammed Bush by stating, It is simply astounding that any member of the executive branch could have believed that our Constitution justified this egregious violation of plaintiffs’ rights.”

Then Holloway turned on his fellow judges and called them “misguided,” adding, “We address here speech that is unquestionably protected, or more accurately, entitled to be protected under the First Amendment. It is severely distressing that such protection is not forthcoming from this court.”

Why is this case important? It sets a precedent that other conservatives can use to attack free speech in the court system. This decision clearly ignores basic First Amendment rights—since the bumper sticker, just like the protester’s sign, is an expression of an individual opinion. As the decisions pile up, they will take on the authority of case law—and be followed routinely in future court rulings.

Just as importantly, the outcome of this case is another example of how the last decade’s far-right-wing appointees to the judicial bench are going to change the way that we are able to express our opinions and exercise our rights as citizens for years to come.

If the ACLU is not successful in finding a way to get this decision overturned, you can bet that Weise v Caspar will haunt future cases for a long time to come. In the meantime, think about what you put on your car bumper, carry in a march, or write to a newspaper. In the not-so-distant future, thanks to the 10th Circuit Court, you may find that speaking your mind is no longer your protected right under the law.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jason luke permalink
    July 11, 2010 3:48 am

    i think this sounds ridiculous. At least this only applys to residents in the 10th circuit courts area. Hopefully the supreme court will hear it, or possibly another court will rule differently. This would force the court to hear the case in the interest of keeping solidarity.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    July 11, 2010 3:58 pm

    Jason, first of all, it’s not exactly a snap to get the Supreme Court to hear a case. Secondly, although this decision only applies to the 10th Circuit Court, this case may now be used as a persuasive precedent. A persuasive precedent is any precedent set in a court that is useful or relevant to a proceeding, even if it is from another jurisdiction. It can come from a case heard in a lower court, in a circuit court from another geographic jurisdiction, or even a case from a military tribunal.

    Courts will rely on a persuasive precedent when dealing with a case that has the same basic parameters and conditions. So, although this isn’t binding on other jurisdictions, it can enter into another jurisdiction when used in this way. And a bad law can spread from one jurisdiction to another through this method. That’s what the ACLU is hoping to close the door on.

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