The Supreme Court has struck down a Minnesota law that prohibited voters from wearing politically themed items inside polling places. In a 7-2 decision, the justices held that limits on polling place attire are generally constitutional, but Minnesota’s statute ran afoul of the First Amendment. The Minnesota state legislature could now pass a new law to meet the court’s standards. However, the Minnesota legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until next January, after the November election.
The justices agreed that the Minnesota law was simply too broad. The Minnesota law took the position that the state could ban apparel with a message on any subject on which a party or candidate has taken a stand. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said Minnesota’s definition of political apparel would allow the state to ban T-shirts or buttons of any company that took a position on a political issue. The court said that the state failed to “articulate some sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in from what must stay out.”
The case before the court was brought by Andrew Cilek, a local political activist in Minneapolis. Cilek went to the polls in 2010 wearing Tea Party-related apparel. He was twice denied the ability to vote while wearing the apparel, but was given a ballot when he returned a third time with his lawyer. He was then told that his name was being recorded for possible prosecution, which can include a $300 fine.
The court did reaffirm the notion that political speech can be regulated at polling places. Many such laws currently on the books were enacted in late 1800s and early 1900s in order to prevent arguments, harassment and voter suppression. All states have laws prohibiting certain types of political speech, verbal and non-verbal, inside or near polling stations. However, most states are not expected to face the same issues as Minnesota, as the Minnesota law was considered the broadest in the country.
Two justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, dissented on procedural grounds. While they agreed with the court’s reasoning, they said that the case should have been remanded to the Minnesota Supreme Court for more clarity on the statute.