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Suppressing Danger or Suppressing a Viewpoint? Secret Service and the First Amendment

April 2, 2012

By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer

Our First Amendment freedoms give you the right to speak your mind, to have your say, to voice opinions that might not be popular – even to disagree with those in power. Because of freedom of speech, you could march right up to your elected officials and tell them off if you wanted to, right?

Well…not quite. The Supreme Court is hearing the case of a man who was arrested by the Secret Service for doing just that. Except in this case, the person did a tiny bit more than just speak his mind.

It was 2006, and the Iraq war – as well as the public debate surrounding it – was at its most intense. Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting Colorado, holding a meet-and-greet at the shopping mall in the town of Beaver Creek. A local man, Steven Howards, spotted him, and told a friend he was speaking to on his cell phone, “I’m going to ask him how many kids he’s killed today” – a play on the Vietnam War-era chant “Hey, hey, LBJ / how many kids did you kill today.”

Secret Service agents were in the vicinity, heard him say it, and decided to keep an eye on him. When Howards approached Vice President Cheney, Howards told him that his policies on Iraq were “disgusting.” Cheney thanked him for his opinion. And as he left, Howards touched the vice president’s shoulder with his open hand.

Whether this was a friendly pat, an aggressive shove, or something in between is unclear, but the Secret Service treated it as a threat. Howards continued on his way to a family event, and later that day was approached by the Secret Service agents from earlier. They arrested him for assaulting the vice president and took him to a local sheriff’s office for questioning.

Howards sued, saying that the assault charge was simply an excuse to punish him for speaking his opinion about Iraq in a way that disagreed with the vice president. Howards said his right to free speech was violated by the Secret Service.

The Secret Service, on the other hand, argues that its agents were doing their job. These are people hired to take a bullet for elected officials if the need arises – if they see somebody making unsolicited contact with the vice president, even if it’s a misperceived friendly pat, they say it’s their place to step in.

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, lawyers for the Secret Service and for the Obama administration have petitioned the Supreme Court to create an exception for federal agents in cases like this: If federal agents can show they acted with probable cause (meaning they reasonably thought that danger was present), they would be immune to lawsuits accusing them of violating the First Amendment.

David Lane, the lawyer for Howards, says the problem is not significant enough to justify a change. “The Secret Service has adequately done their jobs beautifully for over a century and there is no reason to put some different rule down,” he told the Supreme Court.

What do you think?

Should federal agents be immune from lawsuits over freedom of speech? When they act with probable cause, are they violating rights? Or, as Howards suggested, do you think they used his action to justify retaliation for criticizing the vice president? Where should the line be drawn? Join the discussion!

Update: June 4, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that two Secret Service agents could not be sued for arresting the Colorado protester. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: "This court has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable case." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer did not join Thomas' opinion. They said they voted to shield the agents because they had a duty to make "singularly swift, on the spot, decisions" to protect the lives of top officials.


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Comments
10/24/2012
Watertown/MA
Elayna
Mr. Rimas/Watertown High School
I find it ridiculous that the Secret Service would arrest someone for simply touching the man's shoulder, especially seeing as they arrested him long AFTER he had left the VP's presence. If there was actually any real danger they would have arrested him at the time of contact, not after he had already gone home. I have no trouble at all believing that the Secret Service was using the physical contact as an excuse to violate Howards' First Amendment rights. To quote, "it's dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."

5/10/2012
Porterville, CA
Andres
Mr.Smith/Monache
Federal agents should not be immune from lawsuits over freedom of speech since that gives the government more power to what they can tell the secret service on what they could find as a threat. I do think they were violating the rights. The Secret Service was doing their job but they should have searched him to see if he had any weapons before they arrested him. I don’t think they were trying to silence him since I do think they were doing their job, but I also think they took things to far.

5/10/2012
porterville,ca
salinna
smith/monache
I think that they were only doing there job. Yes if i was in there situation then i would do the same thing. Since being they whole point is to protect the vp under any circumstances. Though with whole aressting they are going a little to far. If it was anybody else they wouldnt arrest him. THus, maybe it helps them protect the vp by identifying and collecting ifnformation.

5/3/2012
Montgomery/ TX
Cortney
Mr. Metzger / Montgomery High School
I agree with immunity for the Secret Service in this case but I don't believe that there is a need to make the changes to the law that have been sent to the Court by the Obama administration. Howards had the right to speak his mind to the Vice President, but he shouldn't have touched him. First Amendment does not cover unwanted physical contact. The changes to the law would affect a person's right to freedom of speech and we don't need the government making changes to our constitution.

4/13/2012
Irving/ Tx
Randie
Bradley/ Nimitz
I don't think that federal agents should be immune from lawsuits over freedom of speech. Because that's like telling a kid you can have a whole pack of cookies, but don't eat any of them. I agree with Howard saying, “They used his action to justify retaliation for criticizing the vice president .” Because if he really would have assaulted the Vice President, why didn't they arrest him on the spot? I feel like they violated the right of freedom of speech.

4/12/2012
Irving, Texas
Keller Simpson
Bradley/Nimitz
The Bill of Rights was not drafted lightly – they were put in place for the protection of the people which the government was made to serve. There was no addendum after each amendment saying “so long as it doesn’t hinder the federal government,” it spoke of the rights protected regardless of circumstance. No agency, no matter the level of importance, should be given the right to defy one of the most basic principles that separates the United States from the tyranny of oppressive dictatorships like that of the very government our country was formed to break away from; however, the cries of Howards claiming that the arrest was only to silence him is over-exaggerated, at best. His freedom of speech was not violated – his opinion was heard, and would have been heard without the unwarranted contact with Cheney, which, as the Secret Service stated, is justification enough for arrest. Howards claims violation of his freedom of speech, but, disappointingly, tactile contact is not included in that right. The actions of the Secret Service are hardly unjustified, yet the petition to exonerate them of lawsuits claiming infringement of rights is beyond the powers vested in the Federal Government as stated in the very Constitution the rights are listed. Doing their job is one thing – granting them unconstitutional powers is another.

4/11/2012
Irving/TX
Cathy
Bradley/Nimitz
Federal agents should be immune from lawsuits over freedom of speech. It's not too hard to explain, they are merely doing their job. Although, if it was obvious that the federal agents are at fault, then yes, appropriate lawsuits and punishments should take place. We hear stories of some police officers taking advantage of their power and arresting people for no reason, or beating people that they just plainly dislike. Federal agents shouldn't be excluded from lawsuits and punishments if that were the case, and if it was proven. Other than that, they were doing what they're paid to be doing. People are slick nowadays. Steven Howards could've tried to stab Cheney or something with that swift pat on the shoulder movement. Federal agents couldn't be careful enough, people are crafty nowadays. We can't risk to lose an official just because some agents were afraid of getting sued. When they're acting with probable cause, they are not violating rights whatsoever. I'm pretty sure Howards is wrong when he said that they used his action to justify retaliation for criticizing the vice president. He shouldn't be so egocentric. Not the whole world revolves around his opinions. I'm sure both Cheney and his secret service have heard an earful from other concerned and rather rude citizens as well. They wouldn't arrest him just because of something he said, it was that touch on the shoulder that the whole case is centralized on. Even if it was a “friendly pat”, I'm sure Howards has enough common sense to know that you can't just touch a vice president like that. Sure, the first amendment protects your right to speak your mind, but where does touching come into play? That's where we should draw the line.

4/11/2012
Irving/Texas
Mayra
Bradley/Nimitz
I believe that the secret service should not be immune from lawsuits over freedom of speech. They are not above the law, and everyone has a right to say what they want. They are there to protect the president or vice president during true threat, not defending them over the things people tell them. People can say what they want without being punished, unless they physically hurt or are threatening.

4/10/2012
Irving/Tx
Ashley Lenart
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that federal agents should be immune to lawsuits over freedom of speech, because the circumstances getting them into these lawsuits is a part of their job to protect the president. They are trained to protect the president at all costs including their own lives, therefore I think it is reasonable to assume they would take every precaution necessary. The first amendment gives you the right to “freedom of speech” not “freedom to speak and then touch the vice president”. Therefore, I don't think they are violating Howards rights under the circumstances. I think the agents had every right to do what they did in order to keep Cheney out of harms way. Yes, just touching someone isn't an offense; if it were, the whole nation would be in jail. Howard does have a right to say whatever he would like to whomever he likes, but what he did in touching the vice president was too risky. He may have been caught up in the moment, but he can't deny he wouldn't have done the same thing if he were put in the agents shoes. I don't think that the agents were violating Howards freedom of speech, they were simply doing their job in protecting the vice president.

4/9/2012
benson az
colton
sorenson
federal agents should not be immune to lawsuits because they re not above the law. they had probable cause and acceted correctly but they should of used other methods. the line should be drawn when itis clearly stated in the laws.

4/4/2012
pomerne
beth
sorenson
I think that the secret service should suprsess angainst view point becasue if they supress against supressing danger i think that would be really bad and dangerous

4/4/2012
Benson
Edythe Figueroa
Mr.Sorensen
Everybody has their own opinion on something, if its a threat that is something totally different. If their is action and a serious threat in the tone that they address then they should be cautious on the person and keep a good eye on them.

4/3/2012
Benson AZ
Ashley Cope
Benson Union High School Marv Sorenson
I think that Howard did nothing wrong that he was expreswsing his won feelings about the war and the governments role in it. We have fredom of speech in the country for a reason we should all be able to voice it. It may have been spoken in a rude condecending way but being a Vice president means you should be used to hearing all sorts of opinions about the way the country is being ran. Secret service should have reacted differently, rather than putting hands on a man who was not posing danger and had no weapon on him.

4/3/2012
Benson, AZ
Jeannie
Mr. Sorenson/ Benson High School
I don't think that elected officials should be immune to lawsuits regarding freedom of speech, because everybody is going to have their opinion about something regardless. On the other hand, I do believe that the Secret Service always needs to be on guard against threats to our elected officials and with probable cause they should know how to react accordingly.

4/3/2012
Benson
Chace
Mr. Sorensen
I think the secret service did the right thin. I would have taken more direct action at the time of the incident. HE voluntarily touched the vice president. he could have killed him. who knows what kind of weapons he had or could have had. Speaking you mind is one thin, which you are entirely entitled too, but making sudden motions around important elected officials is dangerous. Especial with the secret service watching you.

4/2/2012
benson, AZ
Ryan
Sorenson/ Benson high School
i think that they should have the same rules that we have to follow and no "exceptions" from the law because that is favoring people that work for the government and we already have enough of that to deal with.

4/2/2012
Benson/AZ
Victoria Dukes
Mr. Sorenson/BHS
I think that Howard did nothing wrong all he did was express his feelings about the Iraq war, Its freedom of speech, he may of directed the comment in a rude way but being a VP means that you hear all different opinions an to have the secret service react in that way is un-called for. To put your hands on someone else is wrong but they could of just ended it there, he didnt have a weapon on him..

4/2/2012
benson/ arizona
jonathan sooter
marv sorenson
I agree they shouldnt have blown it out of porptions with just a touch to the shoulder becuse honestly yeah the man spoke his mind. no one can say that he didnt have the right becuse he did. now i understand they saw him touching the vice president but they could have just look into it and saved everyone greif over something so trivial becuse that was a wast of valuable time and it did go against his rights as a amearican citizen.

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