The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Minnesota law that banned voters from going to the polls while wearing t-shirts, buttons and similar items containing politically charged messages.
In a 7-2 decision, the justices held that limits on polling place attire are generally constitutional, but Minnesota’s statute ran afoul of the First Amendment because it offered too little clarity about what slogans and what kinds of clothing qualify as too political to be worn as people vote.
"If a State wishes to set its polling places apart as areas free of partisan discord, it must employ a more discernible approach than the one Minnesota has offered here," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s majority.
"For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AARP, the World Wildlife Fund, and Ben & Jerry’s all have stated positions on matters of public concern. If the views of those groups align conflict with the position of a candidate or party on the ballot, does that mean that their insignia are banned?"
Roberts said Minnesota’s approach was so broad it potentially swept in people intending not to to convey any particular messages.
"In the run-up to the 2012 election, Presidential candidates of both major parties issued public statements regarding the then-existing policy of the Boy Scouts of America to exclude members on the basis of sexual orientation. Should a Scout leader in 2012 stop-ping to vote on his way to a troop meeting have been asked to cover up his uniform?" Roberts asked. "The State’s difficulties with its restriction go beyond close calls on borderline or fanciful cases. And that is a serious matter when the whole point of the exercise is to prohibit the expresson of political views."
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented, saying defining terms like "political" is not as tough as the majority suggested.
"The word ‘political’ is, of course, not inherently incapable of definition. This Court elsewhere has encountered little difficulty discerning its meaning in the context of statutes subject to First Amendment challenges," Sotomayor wrote.
Sotomayor and Breyer said they would have asked Minnesota’s top court to provide a definitive interpretation of the statute before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on its constitutionality.
The lawsuit decided Thursday was brought by Minnesota political activist Andrew Cilek, who went to the polls in 2010 wearing a T-shirt with a Tea Party logo and the message: "Don’t tread on me." He was initially denied the right to vote, but officials eventually relented and allowed him to cast a ballot. However, they suggested he could be subject to legal action over the shirt.