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The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a Minnesota law that bars voters from wearing political apparel inside polling places. Though two justices dissented on procedural grounds, all of them agreed the Minnesota law and the manner in which it was enforced were simply too broad. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The problem with the Minnesota law, the court said, is that the state failed to articulate some sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in from what must stay out. At the same time, though, the court said states are entitled to exclude some political apparel in order to preserve, quote, "an island of calm in which voters can peacefully contemplate their choices."
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said Minnesota's definition of political apparel combined with the haphazard guidance provided by state officials to poll workers rendered the statute unconstitutional. Because the state takes the position that it can ban apparel with a message on any subject on which a party or candidate has taken a stand, Roberts said, any number of T-shirts or buttons could be banned from the polling place, even those with the insignia of the AARP, the World Wildlife Fund or Ben & Jerry's. And he pointed to the oral argument earlier this year at which the state's top lawyer maintained that a T-shirt emblazoned with the First Amendment would be allowed into the polling place but not a Second Amendment T-shirt.
The Court stressed that in the context of polling places and the areas immediately surrounding them, states are not required to achieve, quote, "perfect clarity" in their regulations. But the court said the Minnesota law and regulations are simply too broad and too unreasonable to swallow.
Doug Chapin is director of the Election Academy at the University of Minnesota.
DOUG CHAPIN: The good news for people who worry about the polling place turning into yet another place where there is kind of riotous and disruptive political speech is that the Supreme Court has come down and said, no, polling places can be insulated from that kind of back-and-forth; we just need states to be much more clear about what is and isn't allowed.
TOTENBERG: The case before the court was brought by voters from a group calling themselves Election Integrity Watch. They wore Tea Party T-shirts and buttons that said please ID me. After poll workers asked them to either remove or cover up their message, they sued, contending their First Amendment right of free speech had been violated. Today they won but with a big caveat.
In his opinion for the Court today, Chief Justice Roberts specifically said the state may prohibit messages like the please ID me buttons, which poll workers worried were intended to mislead voters into thinking they needed to have a photo ID to vote. But Roberts said Minnesota had not written this law to deal with such misleading messages.
Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: The concern that we had most was that this not be a license for vigilantes screaming about voter fraud to come in and make it so that it's harder for people to vote. What the Supreme Court said today is the state can still restrict that kind of conduct.
TOTENBERG: Ilya Shapiro of the libertarian Cato Institute insisted today that there's still room for a further challenge to more narrowly drawn statutes.
ILYA SHAPIRO: I'd like to see a challenge to a law that actually specifically prohibited simply wearing a T-shirt with a party logo or the name of a candidate.
TOTENBERG: But the court's opinion cited approvingly laws in some states that specifically ban T-shirts like that. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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