Wood v. Moss: New Supreme Court First Amendment Qualified Immunity Decision Involving Presidential Security
On May 27, 2014, the Supreme Court handed down Wood v. Moss (PDF), 572 U.S. — (2014)(No. 13-115), dealing with the qualified immunity of Secret Service agents sued by protesters for damages under the First Amendment in connection with protecting the President.
The Protestors’ Claim
Wood dealt with a Bivens First Amendment damages action against Secret Service agents who allegedly engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination when they moved the plaintiff protesters of President Bush farther away from him when he was dining. Specifically, two groups of demonstrators, protesters and supporters, were initially situated across from one another during the President’s motorcade, but the President made a quick decision to have dinner at the outdoor patio of a restaurant. The protesters then moved to an area in front of the restaurant but were soon thereafter moved by the agents about two blocks away and outside of weapons range of the President. However, the supporters remained in their original location near a building that kept them outside of weapons range of the President. When the President left the restaurant, he passed his supporters but the protesters were beyond his hearing and sight.
The Court’s Unanimous Qualified Immunity Decision
Writing for a unanimous Court that reversed the Ninth Circuit and ruled that the agents were protected by qualified immunity, Justice Ginsburg at the outset emphasized the gravity of the specter of Presidential assassination and the need for the agents to make quick decisions. Assuming arguendo that the plaintiffs stated a Bivens First Amendment claim, she then went on to determine that the agents did not violate clearly settled First Amendment law on October 14, 2004, when the event occurred. In other words, “it [should] not have been clear to the agents that the security perimeter they established violated the First Amendment.”
No Clearly Established First Amendment Duty Under the Circumstances
According to Justice Ginsburg, while it was clearly established at a general level that governmental viewpoint discrimination violated the First Amendment, it was not clearly established in a situation involving Presidential security that the agents were under a First Amendment obligation to make sure that groups with opposing viewpoints were at comparable locations at all times. Moreover, this would not have made sense under the circumstances since the protesters’ location in front of the restaurant put the President within weapons range and gave them a “largely unobstructed view” while the supporters were never within weapons range of the President. Furthermore, there was no First Amendment obligation to move the supporters away from the President’s motorcade after he left the restaurant.
Finally, the plaintiffs’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the agents’ sole motivation were undermined by a showing that the protesters were a security risk because of their location. Thus, the officers had valid security reasons to move the plaintiffs.
As noted, Wood was a unanimous decision whose reasoning and result clearly reflected the Court’s overriding concern with avoiding the second-guessing of Secret Service agents when engaged in protecting the President of the United States.
It is also important to note that the protesters of the President and his supporters were treated the same way initially. It was only when the President unexpectedly changed his plans that the agents had to act quickly and, above all else, make sure the President was out of weapons range.
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