WASHINGTON (CN) - Secret Service agents have immunity from claims that they violated the rights of protesters at a 2004 campaign stop for President George W. Bush, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The incident occurred in the historic mining town of Jacksonville, Ore., a small community not far from Medford. On the evening of Oct. 14, 2004, rival groups of demonstrators, both several-hundred-persons strong, had gathered near the Jacksonville Inn Honeymoon Cottage, where Bush was said to be staying.
Anti-Bush protesters had notified the police in advance about their plans for a "multigenerational" and peaceful protest. About two hours after they began to gather, however, the Secret Service, purportedly in the interest of security, ordered state and local police to clear the street of anti-Bush protesters and move the gathering two blocks away.
Pro-Bush demonstrators and other guests at the inn meanwhile were allegedly not forced to move or to undergo security screening.
In the new location far from the president's cottage, police allegedly divided the anti-Bush group and encircled its members, preventing them from leaving. Protesters said the police eventually pushed, clubbed and shot pepper spray at them.
With the help of the Oregon ACLU, seven named plaintiffs and the Jackson County Pacific Green Party sued the Secret Service and state and local law enforcement officials in 2006. Senior U.S. District Judge Owen Panner in Medford denied immunity to two Secret Service agents, Tim Wood and Rob Savage.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed in 2000, but granted the protesters leave to amend in light of recent Supreme Court decisions that changed the landscape on viewpoint discrimination.
After considering the more detailed claims under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly
(2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal
(2009), the appellate panel denied
Wood and Savage qualified immunity in April 2012.
The Supreme Court picked up
the case in late 2013 and unanimously reversed Tuesday.
Though the 9th Circuit had seen no reason for "the considerable disparity in the distance each group was allowed to stand from the presidential party," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said there is no precedent alerting "Secret Service agents engaged in crowd control that they bear a First Amendment obligation 'to ensure that groups with different viewpoints are at comparable locations at all times.'"
"Nor would the maintenance of equal access make sense in the situation the agents confronted," the ruling continues.
There would have been no security rationale for Secret Service to move "the president's supporters further to the west so that they would not be in range of the president when the motorcade drove from the Inn to the cottage where the president would stay overnight," according to the ruling.
"No clearly established law, we agree, required the Secret Service 'to interfere with even more speech than security concerns would require in an attempt to keep opposing groups at roughly equal distances from the president,'" Ginsburg added. "And surely no such law required the agents to attempt to maintain equal distances by 'prevail[ing] upon the president not to dine at the inn.'"
Citing a map of the area, Ginsburg also said the agents showed "that, because of their location, the protesters posed a potential security risk to the president, while the supporters, because of their location, did not."