In February, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Minnesota district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the state, finding that the government could effectively prohibit political speech in polling places. In a short decision, the court determined that speech by members of the Tea Party was properly restricted from polling locations.
Minnesota has a state statute that prohibits individuals from wearing political buttons or other insignia in polling places on election days. The state issued a policy guide which was intended to assist election judges with the types of material that constituted political speech, which included “issue-oriented” material or material that promoted groups with political ends. Failure to abide by the restriction could result in prosecution for a criminal misdemeanor. The group that challenged the law included several members who wished to bear the insignia of the Tea Party in polling places.
In its analysis, the Eighth Circuit determined that the polling place was a nonpublic forum in which the government was required to regulate on a viewpoint neutral basis, with regulations that are reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum. Relying on Burson v. Freeman, the court noted that the government has a compelling interest in eliminating confusion and undue influence in polling places. The court easily concluded that the restriction was viewpoint neutral, and held that the plaintiffs failed to show that the restriction was unreasonable as applied to the Tea Party members who wished to bear their insignia in the polling place. The court agreed with the state that the insignia of the Tea Party was clearly within the ambit of the policy on political speech.
This case reaffirms earlier decisions from the Supreme Court and lower courts regarding political speech in and around polling places, i.e., that the government has relatively wide latitude to prohibit speech, including signs, banners, pins, and even clothing based on its content in order to preserve the sanctity of the electoral process.