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Opinion analysis: Too close to the president for comfort

In an opinion filled with chilling, repeated references to being within shooting or grenade-throwing distance of the president, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Tuesday that the Secret Service did not engage in unconstitutional censorship when its agents moved protesters out of range of a president as he dined on an outdoor restaurant patio.

The ruling stressed that the Constitution does not allow the Secret Service, in protecting the chief executive, to treat protesters differently from supporters based on their dueling messages.  But it found adequate security justifications for the steps that agents took to protect President George W. Bush from his vocal critics when he made an impromptu stop for dinner during a campaign visit to Jacksonville, Oregon, in 2004.

The opinion was far more focused upon the potential threats to President Bush than on the differing treatment that those opposed to his policies received.  The document included a map of the scene with an arrow — added to the map by the Court itself — showing a direct line of fire from where the protesters were to the patio where Bush ate his dinner.

That illustration added a vivid graphic image to the opinion’s several references to the nature of potential assassination threats to presidents.  It was plain that all members of the Court viewed that threat as so nearly ever present that it added to the discretion that the Justices were willing to grant the Secret Service in its sentinel function.

A group of protesters had sued two agents, contending that, even though those opposed to the president’s policies were initially allowed to be as close to Mr. Bush as those in favor of his policies had been, the agents decided to try to squelch the protest by moving that part of the crowd further away than the pro-Bush group had been allowed to remain.

A federal appeals court ruled that the protesters had made a sufficient claim to allow their lawsuit against the agents to go forward.  The Supreme Court, however, stopped the lawsuit, concluding that — under the circumstances at the time of this particular incident — the agents had more than enough reason to move the protesters further away than the supporters because the protesters had gotten too close.

The Court has several times shown a strong inclination to defer to the Secret Service in its task of protecting the nation’s top government leader.  In doing so again, the Court focused very tightly on the facts on the ground in this particular case in deferring to the agents’ tactical judgment.

The Court did not lay down a flat rule that no protest group would ever be able to show that they were treated less favorably by the Secret Service, but the new ruling stressed how hard it would likely be to win such a case, when the president’s protective squad is making on-the-spot decisions about how to arrange for his security.

The Ginsburg opinion spoke for the full Court, with no separate opinions written.


Cases: Wood v. Moss

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Too close to the president for comfort, SCOTUSblog (May. 27, 2014, 1:57 PM),