The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against an Oregon protester Monday who claimed two Secret Service agents violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
"It could have been a lot worse," said Dave Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If you go back and listen to the oral arguments, it could have been much, much worse."
The case, which the ACLU brought on behalf of Michael Moss, started in 2004 when President George W. Bush stopped at the Jacksonville Inn in the final weeks of his re-election campaign. At the last minute, the president decided to dine on the inn's outdoor patio, and Secret Service agents cleared the area around the inn but left the protesters in place.
About 15 minutes later, the agents ordered police to move the anti-Bush protesters two blocks away, but they allowed the pro-Bush demonstrators to remain.
Attorneys for the agents and Moss asked the Supreme Court to answer two questions: Were the protesters' First Amendment rights violated when police pushed them down the street? And if this was a First Amendment violation, do Secret Service members deserve "qualified immunity" from prosecution in order to effectively continue doing their jobs?
On the first question, the court ruled against Moss.
On the second question, the court ruled that these specific agents deserved qualified immunity, but it maintained that government officials generally are prohibited from engaging in viewpoint discrimination.
"It's a fairly narrow decision," Fidanque said.
He was worried that Justice Antonin Scalia would write what's called a concurring opinion that would "have been much more extreme." The conservative justice asked several questions during oral arguments that left Fidanque wondering whether Scalia believed no federal official could ever be sued for a violation of the First Amendment.
"The decision leaves us in probably a shakier position with regards to Secret Service agents than other government officials because of the unique role they play in protecting the president," Fidanque said.
The court's decision isn't the end for this case.
Unlike other cases that reach the Supreme Court after trial, this case was to determine whether the agents could be tried in the first place.
"This case may be over for the two Secret Service agents that were involved," Fidanque said. "But we are going to be reassessing the remainder of the case against the state police, the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the Jacksonville Police Department for excessive use of force."
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