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January 25, 2013

White House protester wins one over Secret Service

A White House #protester can pursue her #lawsuit against the Secret Service agents that tried to shut her up, a federal judge has ruled.

In a First Amendment-friendly 19-page decision, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg kept alive the suit filed by Pennsylvania resident and long-distance walker Debra L. Hartley. Boasberg, rejecting Justice Department requests to dismiss the suit, concluded Hartley just might have a case.

Here's what happened, largely in Boasberg's words:

On July 20, 2009, following a 225-mile trek from her home,  Hartley arrived in Washington seeking to meet with Michelle Obama to express her concerns about sex discrimination in law enforcement. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the White House and wearing a vest bearing the words “Walking to the White House,” Hartley was confronted by two uniformed Secret Service officers, one of them named Wilfert.

Wilfert informed Hartley that if she remained, she would be required to provide background data, including her name, date of birth, and Social Security number, as well as to fill out a card and submit to questions. He advised her to leave, rather than be added to the Secret Service list and be “considered one of the crazies who protest in front of the White House.” Intimidated, Hartley left.

Hartley subsequently sued, alleging a violation of her free-speech rights. Though not rendering a final decision, Boasberg concluded Hartley has made enough of an argument to continue; the judge noted:

"Hartley was not threatened with arrest here if she continued speaking. Wilfert’s words, however, sought to intimidate her and to deter her from speaking – the same effect as a threat of arrest."


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Wow! That is a bold step for a freedom of speech.There seemed to be no grounds for threat right? But how come that ended up as intimidating? Really wondering.

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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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