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Supreme Court gives voters more freedom to wear political T-shirts to polling places

Supreme Court gives voters more freedom to wear political T-shirts to polling places
A guard stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

The Supreme Court gave voters slightly more freedom to wear political T-shirts or buttons when they go to cast a ballot, striking down a broad Minnesota law that imposed a “political apparel ban.”

The justices by a 7-2 vote said Thursday that Minnesota’s law violated the 1st Amendment because it was not clear what was prohibited. The state’s lawyers had told the court, for example, that the law would bar a T-shirt that included the text of the 2nd Amendment and its right to “bear arms,” but a T-shirt with the 1st Amendment and its “freedom of speech” text would be allowed.

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Chief Justice John G. Roberts credited Minnesota with “good intentions” but said its vague law was not “capable of reasoned application” and is therefore unconstitutional.

By contrast, he lauded a California law that forbids the “visible display” of a candidate’s name or likeness inside the polling place as well as apparel that includes “the display of a ballot measure’s number, title subject or logo.”

Roberts held out the California law as an example of what probably would pass constitutional muster, saying that because it sets a “more lucid” rule, both voters and election monitors can discern what is and is not permitted inside polling places.

The high court reaffirmed its view that states may preserve a “campaign-free zone outside the polls so as to protect ‘the right to vote ... and the secret ballot.’” States may also forbid “some forms of advocacy” inside polling places, Roberts wrote.

“Casting a vote is a weighty civic act, akin to a jury’s return of a verdict, or a representative’s vote on a piece of legislation. It is a time for choosing, not campaigning,” he said.

But to protect free-speech rights, the law must be clear, he added.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer dissented, although they did not express a difference with the majority on the substance of the case. They said they would have sent the dispute back to Minnesota’s highest court to clarify the meaning of the state’s law.

The case of Minnesota Voters Alliance vs. Mansky began in 2010 when several voters were turned away from the polls because they wore shirts that said “Tea Party Patriots.”

They later sued, and the litigation revealed that the state’s law was vague and left to polling place monitors to decide what was allowed.

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