Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Polling-Place Dress Code

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A federal court struck down two Texas state laws that forced voters to refrain from wearing clothing with political messages on them in or near polling places as unconstitutional infringements of free speech.

According to Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national public interest law firm based in Sacramento, California, that represented plaintiff Jillian Ostrewich, the laws gave thousands of election workers across the state unlimited discretion to confront any voter wearing a T-shirt, hat, or button related to any past, present, or future candidate, political party, or ballot measure.

“This is an important win for Texans’ free speech rights,” PLF attorney Wen Fa said.

“The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to express beliefs, regardless of whether others agree with those beliefs. An individual’s right to self-expression does not end at the polling place.”

The ruling by U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr., an Obama appointee, came Sept. 30 in Houston in a case known as Ostrewich v. Hudspeth, civil action 4:19-cv-00715.

Ostrewich, the wife of a firefighter, wore a yellow T-shirt bearing the words “Houston Firefighters” and a small AFL–CIO emblem to a polling place in Houston in October 2018. There was an initiative on the ballot at the time to give firefighters a pay increase. The ballot question, known as Proposition B, was approved by voters 59.2 percent to 40.8 percent in November 2018, Ballotpedia reports.

Election officials ordered Ostrewich to turn her shirt inside out or be barred from casting her ballot. Officials also ordered other voters not to wear shirts bearing the firefighters’ union logo. Firefighters wearing their uniforms to the polls were reportedly admonished by officials.

Ostrewich sued, claiming the voting apparel laws unconstitutionally chilled free speech.

On Sept. 14, Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison recommended that two of the three legal provisions challenged by Ostrewich be struck down. He recommended that a narrower provision, intended to apply to poll workers’ name badges, that prohibits badges or insignia related to candidates, parties, and measures on the ballot, not be struck down.

By Matthew Vadum

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