Secret Service Agents Get Legal Shield From Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the Secret Service’s legal immunity, throwing out a lawsuit against agents accused of improperly shielding President George W. Bush from protesters a decade ago.

Ruling in a case testing the balance between security and speech rights, the justices unanimously said agents didn’t have to defend against claims that they unconstitutionally moved anti-Bush demonstrators farther from the president than Bush supporters.

The case “is scarcely one in which the agents acted without a valid security reason,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.

Seven Bush critics said the Secret Service showed favoritism toward the former president’s supporters during his October 2004 campaign stop in Jacksonville, Oregon. The seven people said that, unlike pro-Bush demonstrators, they were forced to move two blocks from the hotel where the president was dining.

Before the anti-Bush protesters were moved, they were near an alley next to an outdoor patio that the president had made a last-minute decision to visit.

“When the president reached the patio to dine, the protesters but not the supporters were within weapons range of his location,” Ginsburg wrote.

Valid Reason

The Obama administration contended that Secret Service agents can’t be sued as long as they have a valid security reason for their actions. The administration said agents shouldn’t have to worry about ensuring that groups with different viewpoints have comparable proximity to the president.

Ginsburg said favoritism by the Secret Service might be unconstitutional if there were “no objectively reasonable security rationale.”

The lawsuit, pressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, says the Oregon incident was one of 13 in which the Secret Service kept protesters away from Bush.

The decision reaffirmed that the Secret Service can’t “shield the president from criticism,” said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU’s legal director. “The jury should have been allowed to decide whether this case was actually about security or censorship.”

The high court ruled in 2012 that two Secret Service agents couldn’t be sued by a man who was arrested after confronting Dick Cheney when he was vice president.

The case is Wood v. Moss, 13-115.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Oster at poster@bloomberg.net Laurie Asseo, Mark McQuillan

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