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SCOTUS to Hear Challenge to Political Apparel Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. on November 15, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the shadow of the U.S. Supreme Court, millions of Americans have marched on Washington to express political opinions on everything from abortion to war.

But in the one place that their vote actually counts -- the polling place -- several states have declared political speech off-limits. Federal appeals courts have upheld such "speech-free zones" in various states.

In Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, it seems the U.S. Supreme Court may have something to say about that.

"A Good Sign"

"The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case is a good sign for First Amendment rights," attorney Wen Fa told Reuters.

Working for the Pacific Legal Foundation, Fa represents the Minnesota Voters Alliance in a challenge to the state's election law banning voters from wearing "political badges, political buttons, or other political insignia at the polling place."

The Eighth Circuit, aligned with the U.S. Fifth and D.C. circuits, upheld the law. The courts based their reasoning on Burson v. Freeman, a Supreme Court decision that permitted "campaign-free zones."

In their petition, however, the Minnesota alliance says the state law is too broad. Andrew Cilek, executive director of the group, was banned at a polling place for wearing a T-shirt with the Tea Party logo and a campaign button unrelated to anything on the ballot.

"Decorum and Neutrality"

The organization sued, but a federal judge dismissed and the Eight Circuit affirmed. The courts said states have a legitimate interest in maintaining peace and order at polling places.

In its earlier decision this year, the appeals court also said the state statute was content-neutral. It bans all political material.

"Banning apparel with its name and logo is 'reasonable because it is wholly consistent with the [state]'s legitimate interest in preserving' polling place decorum and neutrality," the appellate panel said.

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