The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a polling-place dress code in Minnesota, upholding free speech rights across the nation and protecting the right of Americans to peacefully express their political views at the polls.
PLF represented Minnesota voters, including Andy Cilek, who showed up at his polling place wearing a t-shirt that read “Don’t tread on me.” State law banned voters from wearing any “political” apparel at a polling place. This includes any t-shirt, button, or other items that could be construed as political, or even organizations that take political positions such as the AFL-CIO or NRA. A poll worker not only prevented Andy from voting for five hours, but also took down his name for possible prosecution.
Minnesota election law says that a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place on primary or election day.” Minnesota interprets this law to apply even to apparel that simply bears the logo of any organization with recognizable political views—such as the NAACP or the NRA. Voters who don’t cover up or remove such apparel face prosecution and up to $5,000 in fines, based on the discretion of local, volunteer poll workers.
Andy Cilek became a victim of this law in 2010 when he arrived at his polling place while wearing a t-shirt with an image of the Gadsden flag, a slogan that said “Don’t tread on me,” and a small Tea Party logo. Instead of allowing Andy to vote immediately, an election official prevented him from voting for five hours and took down his name for possible prosecution. This law is far broader than laws that forbid active campaigning or electioneering in near polling places. And at least nine states have laws substantially similar to Minnesota’s statute.
Andy, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, and other groups sued in federal district court to overturn this overbroad law as violating their constitutional right to free speech.
The district court rejected the claims, despite noting that the Tea Party and other plaintiff organizations did not engage in any active campaigning or electioneering. A split Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, saying the government’s interest in maintaining “peace, order, and decorum” at the polling place justifies a blanket political apparel ban.
In other words, the lower courts basically granted the government carte blanche to ban any type of speech—other than voting—at polling places. All voters in Minnesota and the nine other states with similar bans are threatened with the same mistreatment—just for wearing anything a poll worker deems to be “political,” including apparel related to labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, or NAACP.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law, upholding free speech rights across the nation. In a 7-2 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court protected the right of Americans to peacefully express their political views at the polls. Even in this special place, the Court said that the First Amendment allows people to wear apparel expressing their views, whether that’s supporting the Second Amendment, the #MeToo movement, the AARP, or the ACLU.