Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Unanimous Supreme Court in Wood v. Moss: Secret Service Agents Have Qualified Immunity in First Amendment Challenge
In a relatively brief opinion in Wood v. Moss, Justice Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous Court, reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that Secret Service officers had qualified immunity in a First Amendment challenge based on viewpoint discrimination against anti-Bush demonstrators.
Recall that the challenge in Wood v. Moss involved an allegation that the Secret Service removed anti-Bush protestors to a location farther from the then-President while he ate dinner while allowing pro-Bush demonstrators to remain in their location.
The Court decided that any viewpoint discrimination was not the "sole" reason for the change in location and thus the agents had qualified immunity. The Court agreed with the agents that the map provided by the protesters, and included in the Court's opinion [image at right]
undermines the protesters’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the sole reason for the agents’ directions. The map corroborates that, because of their location, the protesters posed a potential security risk to the President, while the supporters, because of their location, did not.
The Court rejected the protestors arguments, including the White House Manual that stated that protestors should be designated to zones "preferably not in view of the event site" and that Secret Service agents have engaged in viewpoint discrimination in the past. Here, however, the Court stressed that "this case is scarcely one in which the agents acted 'without a valid security reason.'" Emphasis in original, quoting from Brief.
While reaffirming that a Bivens action "extends to First Amendment claims" - - - a question at oral argument - - - the Court nevertheless noted that individual government officials cannot be held liable in a Bivens suit unless they themselves acted unconstitutionally:
We therefore decline to infer from alleged instances of misconduct on the part of particular agents an unwritten policy of the Secret Service to suppress disfavored expression, and then to attribute that supposed policy to all field- level operatives.
Under the Court's rationale, future Bivens claimants of First Amendment viewpoint discrimination must demonstrate that the viewpoint discrimination is the sole reason for the action by these particular (and presumably "bad apple") Secret Service agents.
While not one of the Court's more prominent First Amendment cases this Term, Wood v. Moss is important. It further narrows the space for claiming First Amendment violations by Secret Service officers - - - especially combined with the 2012 decision in Reichle v. Howards (holding that Secret Service agents had qualified immunity and rejecting the claim of retaliatory arrest for a man exercising First Amendment rights at a Dick Cheney shopping mall appearance). However, it does preserve some room for claimants to proceed (and perhaps even prevail) on a First Amendment Bivens action against individual Secret Service officers engaged in viewpoint discrimination.