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Groups Prepare to Sue Over Clothing Ban

Anita Kumar

Three groups plan to sue the state to challenge a controversial State Board of Elections policy that bans the wearing of buttons, T-shirts and other clothes with political messages in polling places.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the Rutherford Institute and the ACLU of Virginia say the policy violates the First Amendment rights of voters.

"Thomas Jefferson understood that the first duty of government is to protect the freedom of expression," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. "Regrettably, the State Board of Elections shirked this important civic duty when it adopted what essentially amounts to a dress code policy. This policy not only undermines the First Amendment right to free speech but will most likely affect the right to vote."

The groups plan to file a lawsuit after Election Day, asking a federal judge to strike down the policy as unconstitutional before the 2009 elections.

"Our focus right now is on finding out what actually happens to voters on Election Day," ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis said. "Voters need to tell us their experiences so we'll know how and where this unconstitutional rule is being enforced and what action we need to take."

By Anita Kumar  |  October 29, 2008; 1:19 PM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar  
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Er, this is not a new policy, the publicity is the only thing that's new. I've been working the polls for years, and they've been making me take off buttons and cover up t-shirts the whole time.

I have some sympathy for both sides. Clearly there are limits to free speech in an official setting like a polling place -- allowing campaigners to badger you up to the voting booth would not be good. However, I think banning ordinary articles of clothing and buttons goes too far. It's like trying to ban people from chatting about the election while they're in line -- it's unlikely to change anyone's mind, so it shouldn't be considered "electioneering."

Posted by: jimeh | October 29, 2008 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Jimeh, it IS a new policy. Perhaps poll workers have always been subject to such a ban, but this new policy applies to voters while in the polling place, not just poll workers. And it clearly is a violation of voters' First Amendment rights. Political speech is the most protected of all speech. Ironic that Thomas Jefferson's state should be the one to try to (unnecessarily)restrict political speech.

Posted by: tomguy1 | October 29, 2008 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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