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Supreme Court sides with Secret Service agents in free-speech case

A Colorado man said Secret Service agents arrested him in retaliation for his political comments about former Vice President Dick Cheney. The Supreme Court said the agents had probable cause. 

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A Colorado man has lost his bid to sue two Secret Service agents who allegedly had him arrested in retaliation for critical comments he made to then-Vice President Dick Cheney during a public meet and greet event at a local shopping mall.

The man, Steven Howards, filed a lawsuit against the agents, claiming the retaliatory arrest violated his First Amendment free speech right to express an opinion in public without facing punishment from government officials.

The US Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 on Monday that the two agents are entitled to the protection of qualified immunity from such a lawsuit.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said that the agents who arranged for Howards’s arrest had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed because Howards made a false statement to one of the agents.

Justice Thomas said that given the presence of probable cause to conduct an arrest, any subsequent claim that the arrest was motivated by retaliation based on speech must fail.

“This Court has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause; nor was such a right otherwise clearly established at the time of Howards’ arrest,” Thomas wrote in a 12-page decision.

He added: “Here, the right in question is not a general right to be free from retaliation for one’s speech, but the more specific right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is otherwise supported by probable cause. This Court has never held that there is such a right.”

The decision is consistent with a trend at the high court in recent years granting government officials broad immunity from civil lawsuits charging that officials used their government power to violate constitutional rights.

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