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Does Secret Service protection trump speech rights? Supreme Court hears case.

A Colorado man arrested in 2006 after telling Vice President Cheney what he thought of the Iraq war alleges that Secret Service agents retaliated against him for his opinions.

By Staff writer / March 21, 2012



Washington

In June 2006 a man was detained for several hours after an encounter with then Vice President Dick Cheney in which he voiced his sharp disapproval of the war in Iraq and touched the vice president with his open hand.

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After charges against him were dropped, he filed suit against the Secret Service, alleging that he was arrested because of what he had said to the vice president and because of the opinions he expressed to agents.

On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in an appeal that is asking the justices to enact a special rule exempting US Secret Service agents – and potentially all law enforcement officials – from civil liability for arresting someone allegedly in retaliation for the offensive content of their speech.

The case poses a potential major test of the court’s free speech jurisprudence, and is being heard at a time when First Amendment principles are reportedly hindering efforts of federal agents assigned to protect top American leaders from assassination and other attacks.

During an hour-long oral argument, the eight justices hearing the case appeared sharply divided on the issue, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor most skeptical of the proposed rule.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts appeared supportive.

Justice Elena Kagan is not participating in the case.

At issue in Reichle v. Howards (11-262) is whether two Secret Service agents should be put on trial for money damages for allegedly arresting the Colorado man, Steven Howards, after his encounter with Mr. Cheney.

The agents arrested Mr. Howards for allegedly assaulting the vice president. He was taken to a local sheriff’s office and held for several hours before being released on bond. A local prosecutor charged him with harassment, but the charge was later dropped.

Howards filed a lawsuit against the Secret Service agents claiming that they used their authority to retaliate against him because of what he said.

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