By DUSTIN HARTUV
Before 2018, Minnesota Statute § 211B.II prevented individuals from wearing politically affiliated symbols/clothing at polling booths on election days.[i] The statute was relatively broad, and so officials would distribute information to polling booth administrators to define specific articles of clothing that failed to uphold the rules outlined in the statute. If members of the public were caught disregarding the statute, the individual would still be allowed to vote, but could face misdemeanor prosecution.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) is a non-partisan organization that seeks to encourage voting by all members of the population. To challenge the statute, executive director Andrew Cilek wore a t-shirt with a logo representing the Tea Party, and was barred from voting in 2010.[ii] The MVA, along with Minnesota Majority, Minnesota Northstar Tea Party Patriots, and Election Integrity Watch, sued the Minnesota Secretary of State for violating the First Amendment.
The case was first taken to a district court, and the MVA’s case was denied. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit upheld the district court’s determination, though it was nearly persuaded by some of the arguments before agreeing with the district court. In addition to the arguments of free speech, the MVA claimed that since the Tea Party was not a political party, the apparel did not count under the law. The Eighth Circuit claimed that while that was true, a reasonable interpretation of the statute would include the Tea Party even while it was not officially a political party in Minnesota.[iii]
The MVA then took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that Minnesota was imposing a “speech-free zone” at polling locations. The notion of a “speech-free zone” has its history in the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, when universities began to designate specific zones where protests would be allowed.[iv] Even though there have been constant debates about these zones, there has yet to be a broad ruling by the Supreme Court specifically on these zones. The Supreme Court has, however, decided on issues related to the matter.
For example, in cases such as Police Department of Chicago v. Mosley, the Supreme Court used language involving time, place, and manner restrictions.[v] As the name suggests, the court determined that restrictions of public speech depend on the time, place, and manner of the speech. Another doctrine of the Supreme Court used in manners of public speech is the public forum doctrine, which was adopted from 1939’s Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization.[vi] The public forum doctrine limits the ability of governments to restrain speech in areas that have historically been places of public congregation for debate. Along these lines, “speech-free zones” could be determined to be unconstitutional if one can prove that universities are historic areas of public debate.
In the Supreme Court’s announcement of Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky on June 14, 2019, the Court reversed the decision of the Eight Circuit, stating that the statute violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.[vii] The opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, and the Court argued that a polling place is not a public forum. However, based on the precedented time, place, and manner restrictions, while the statute was reasonable, it was too broad and did not properly define the term “political.”[viii] Therefore, although the decision was reversed, it set a precedent that polling places are not public forums, and that speech may be inhibited as long as the statute is not too broad and covers the time, place, and manner restrictions.
[i] Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2017/16-1435 (last visited Nov 18, 2019).
[iv] David L. Hudson, Jr. and Andrew Gargano, Free-Speech Zones, Freedom Forum Institute (Nov. 8, 2017), https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/free-speech-on-public-college-campuses-overview/free-speech-zones/.
[v] Kevin Francis O’Neill, Time, Place and Manner Restrictions, The First Amendment Encyclopedia (last visited Nov. 18, 2019), https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1023/time-place-and-manner-restrictions.
[vi] David L. Hudson, Jr., Public Forum Doctrine, The First Amendment Encyclopedia (2017), https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/824/public-forum-doctrine.
[vii] Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, 585 U.S. 1 (2018).
[viii] Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2017/16-1435 (last visited Nov 18, 2019).