Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Prohibiting Political Apparel In Polling Places

On Thursday the Supreme Court issued a decision striking down a Minnesota law that prohibited political apparel in polling places. In a 7-2 decision, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the court held that Minnesota’s political apparel ban violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  Justice Sotomayor joined by Justice Breyer, filed a dissenting opinion.

Minnesota’s law stated that a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place.”  Minnesota election judges were authorized to decide whether a particular item fell within the ban. Five days prior to the 2010 election, the plaintiffs filed suit challenging the ban on First Amendment grounds. In response to the lawsuit officials distributed policy guidance to judges on enforcement of the ban.

Justice Roberts explained that “Minnesota may choose to prohibit certain apparel there because of the message it conveys, so that voters may focus on the important decisions immediately at hand. But the State must draw a reasonable line.” He elaborated that the polling place is not a public forum and the state must be able to articulate some sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in and what must stay out. “The unmoored use of the term ‘political’ in the Minnesota law, combined with haphazard interpretations the State has provided in official guidance and representations to this Court, cause Minnesota’s restriction to fail even this forgiving test.”

Justice Roberts gave examples of laws in California and Texas that proscribe displays on apparel that offer a more discernible approach than that given by Minnesota.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayar agreed that states may take reasonable steps to ensure partisan discord not follow the voter up to the voting booth including prohibiting certain apparel in polling places because of the message it conveys but she would have certified the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court for a definitive interpretation of the political apparel ban.

Additional Reading:

​Opinion: Minnesota Voters Aliance v. Mansky

Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Barring Political Apparel at Polling Places

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Alexandru Nika