US appeals court upholds Minnesota law banning political buttons, apparel at polling places

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Hennepin County Attorney's Office news release

March 2, 2017

Contact: Chuck LaszewskiMedia Coordinator, 612-348-5580

"Please ID Me," Tea Party shirts lose in court appeal

What is likely to be the last word in a lawsuit brought by members of the Tea Party and advocates for photo ID came from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in its ruling favoring Hennepin County and state and county election officials.

In its ruling, filed Tuesday, the appeals court said that Minnesota Majority, Minnesota Northstar Tea Party Patriots and Election Integrity Watch failed to prove that a state statute banning political apparel, such as Tea Party shirts, at polling places was either an infringement of a voter’s First Amendment rights or that the state statute was selectively applied.

“Based on the evidence, no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the statute and Policy, as applied to EIW (Election Integrity Watch) violated its First Amendment rights,” the court wrote.

Barring a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which already declined to hear one part of the case, the six-year court battle is over.
“This has been a long process but the outcome is just,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. “The state statute properly balances the need for keeping voters free of undue influence at the polling places with the rights of people to express their political opinions, but no closer than 100 feet from the polling building. I’m proud of the work our lawyers did in this case.”

The case first began in 2010, just before the November election. The plaintiffs went to court against the Minnesota Secretary of State, the Hennepin and Ramsey County Attorneys and election managers. The plaintiffs were seeking a temporary restraining order, preventing them from enforcing the statute that bans political badges, buttons and insignia from polling places. The plaintiffs said they intended to wear “Please ID Me” buttons as part of their push for a law requiring photo IDs to vote and some would wear Tea Party apparel.

That restraining order was denied.

Shortly after the election, the groups and individuals filed a lawsuit against the same defendants. On April 29, 2011 a U.S. District Court judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss and threw out the case on summary judgment.

The case was appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and on March 6, 2013 the appeals court agreed with the dismissal but sent back one claim to develop more facts. That claim was that as the statute was applied to the Tea Party apparel, it might have violated First Amendment rights.
On March 23, 2015, the district court again granted summary judgment to the counties and the secretary of state and again there was an appeal. Attorneys from the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and Hennepin County Attorney’s Office collaborated on the case. However, the two arguments before the 8th Circuit were done by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.
Election Integrity Watch argued that the Tea Party is not a political party and the T-shirts convey only a philosophy, not an endorsement of particular candidates or ballot measures. In their arguments before the appeals court, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Beth Stack and Managing Attorney of the Civil Division, Dan Rogan, produced substantial polling data and media coverage that the Tea Party was viewed as a political party and that, in fact, it had its own caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Election Integrity Watch attorneys also argued that the ban was only enforced against Tea Party members, who were asked to remove or cover the political apparel. People wearing Sierra Club apparel, Target logos or all red or all blue were allowed to vote without question.

The judges, however, wrote that the group had no evidence that people wearing other types of political clothing or buttons were not asked to cover or remove it. “EIW’s evidence shows no more than ‘metaphysical doubt,’ which is not a genuine issue of material fact,” they wrote.

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