Secret Service Case Gets Top Court Review in Speech Clash

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether Secret Service agents can be sued for keeping protesters blocks away from the president during public appearances in a case testing the balance between security and speech rights.

The court today agreed to hear an appeal by President Barack Obama’s administration in a dispute over demonstrations against his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Seven Bush critics say the Secret Service showed favoritism toward the former president’s supporters during his October 2004 campaign stop in Jacksonville, Oregon. The seven people say that, unlike pro-Bush demonstrators, they were forced to move two blocks from the hotel where the president was dining. A federal appeals court let their claims against two agents go forward.

The Obama administration says the Secret Service shouldn’t have to worry about ensuring that groups with different viewpoints have comparable proximity to the president.

The lower court ruling “poses particularly great threats to the Secret Service’s work,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued in court papers.

“In protecting the physical safety of high-ranking public officials, Secret Service agents must often make spur-of-the-moment judgments in circumstances where the cost of a mistake may be very high,” Verrilli said.

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

‘Shield’ President

The agents’ actions “reflected a decision to shield the president from respondents’ unwelcome message while he was dining, rather than any legitimate security concern,” the protesters argued in court papers.

The high court ruled in 2012 that two Secret Service agents couldn’t be sued by a man who was arrested after confronting then-Vice President Dick Cheney. The justices took a narrow approach in the case, saying Secret Service agents were immune from suit without deciding whether the man’s First Amendment rights were violated.

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

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