Protesters in Jacksonville, Oregon, where President George W. Bush was scheduled to spend the night in 2004 while campaigning for a second term.
Protesters in Jacksonville, Oregon, where President George W. Bush was scheduled to spend the night in 2004 while campaigning for a second term. (Photo: American Civil Liberties Union.)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to give Secret Service agents immunity from a First Amendment lawsuit claiming they violated the free speech rights of demonstrators who were protesting a presidential visit in 2004.

Even though the protestors were restricted to an area further away from President George W. Bush than a group of Bush supporters, the Secret Service agent should not be held liable for viewpoint discrimination, the court said in a ruling by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“No decision of which we are aware,” Ginsburg wrote, “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.”

During a 2004 campaign stop in Jacksonville, Ore., President Bush was met by protesters as well as supporters near where he was staying. When Bush decided to have dinner on the outdoor patio of a local inn, Secret Service agents ordered the anti-Bush group to move to a location further away from the inn than the pro-Bush group.

Members of the anti-Bush group filed a so-called Bivens lawsuit against the agents for violating their First Amendment rights. The protesters said they were victims of viewpoint discrimination because they were treated differently from Bush supporters.

After several years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2012 that the demonstrators had established enough of a case of differential treatment that the claim should proceed. The Obama administration, acting on behalf of the agents, appealed to the Supreme Court.

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.