Justices to weigh constitutionality of state ban on political apparel at the polls

Justices to weigh constitutionality of state ban on political apparel at the polls
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a conservative group's challenge to a Minnesota law that bans voters from wearing any political apparel inside a polling place.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on election integrity, argues the law is overly broad and violates the First Amendment’s right to free speech by creating a “speech-free” zone.

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The group’s executive director, Andrew Cilek, was turned away by election officials in 2010 for wearing a Tea Party shirt and a "Please I.D. Me" button, which a district court found were part of a campaign to get the state to enact voter ID laws.

Minnesota state and county officials claim that because the lower court ruled the ban was properly applied to Cilek’s apparel, the case in not an appropriate vehicle to measure whether the law is unconstitutionally broad.

“There is no evidence in the record of inappropriate application in the last 130 years,” they said in court documents. “Moreover, the statute was constitutionally applied to petitioners’ apparel.”

But the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative firm that is representing the Minnesota Voters Alliance, claims the 8th Circuit's decision to uphold the law “effectively chills the free speech rights of millions of voters across the country by threatening criminal prosecution or civil penalties for voters who wear logo t-shirts, caps, jackets, buttons, and other apparel in state-declared speech-free zones.”

The group notes that the Supreme Court has endorsed bans on campaign-related speech at polling places, but claims some states have read that precedent as an “unqualified mandate to ban all speech under the guise of regulating elections.”