Our Opinion: Court ruling on 2004 incident was constitutionally correct
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling announced Tuesday brings to an end the claim that Secret Service agents violated the free speech rights of protesters during a visit to Jacksonville by then President George W. Bush. The decision was predictable — the Secret Service has wide latitude when acting to protect the president — and true to the adage that the wheels of justice grind slowly: The events in Jacksonville happened nearly 10 years ago.
But, while the Constitution may not have been violated, local police officers on the scene are not off the hook; they still face an excessive-force lawsuit for their actions in dealing with peaceful protesters in a confined space.
The high court unanimously dismissed the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against two Secret Service agents in charge on the October evening when Bush decided to have dinner at the Jacksonville Inn.
The original plan had been for the president and first lady to dine in the Inn's honeymoon cottage where they spent the night during a campaign stop in the area. But Bush decided to eat on the restaurant's patio instead.
Crowds of demonstrators, both pro- and anti-Bush, filled the sidewalks along California Street. When the dinner plans changed, the Secret Service decided to move the crowd that was east of Third Street two blocks farther east to make sure no one was within weapons range of the dining area.
A crowd of Bush supporters was allowed to remain west of the Third Street intersection — the basis for the plaintiffs' claim that the two groups were treated unequally.
Local police, including sheriff's deputies and Oregon State Police, did the actual crowd control, and in the process fired non-lethal pepper balls at some protesters and allegedly used batons on others.
The court ruled that the Secret Service had a legitimate security concern because of the proximity of the protesters, and that the supporters were not within grenade-throwing range of the patio, so did not need to be moved.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the court's liberals, quoted a 9th Circuit judge who dissented earlier in the case, writing, "No decision of which we are aware ... would alert Secret Service agents engaged in crowd control that they bear a First Amendment obligation 'to ensure that groups with different viewpoints are at comparable locations at all times.'
"Nor would the maintenance of equal access make sense in the situation the agents confronted," she added.
That satisfies the constitutional question. But those who were present were understandably upset that local police, acting to carry out the Secret Service's orders, felt it necessary to use riot-control weapons on peaceful citizens who had difficulty moving quickly enough to satisfy the officers.
We hope future situations can be handled without resorting to tactics that should be reserved for violent crowds.