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U.S. court rules for Secret Service agents in protest case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that two U.S. Secret Service agents cannot be sued for allegedly treating protesters gathered in support of former President George W. Bush more favorably than protesters critical of him.

The court ruled on a 9-0 vote in favor of agents Tim Wood and Rob Savage, who were backed by the administration of President Barack Obama. The agents appealed a lower court ruling that allowed the lawsuit against them to move forward.

The case concerns an incident that took place on Oct 14, 2004, when Bush, then president, was staying at the Jacksonville Inn in Jacksonville, Oregon.

When the president decided to eat on an outdoor patio, the Secret Service agents decided to move anti-Bush protesters that had gathered outside the inn. After the move, the anti-Bush protesters were further from the president than some pro-Bush demonstrators also gathered near the inn.

Seven of the anti-Bush protesters filed a lawsuit in 2009 claiming that the agents violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on viewpoint discrimination by treating the two groups differently and effectively suppressing their free speech rights.

A federal judge in Oregon refused to dismiss the case in a decision that was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in Tuesday's ruling that there is no court precedent requiring the Secret Service to constantly ensure that all groups with different views are placed in comparable locations.

"In short, the security perimeter established by the agents to meet an unanticipated situation violated no clearly established First Amendment command," Ginsburg said in a statement she read in the courtroom.

The case is Wood v. Moss, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-115.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Andrew Hay)

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