ACLU Defended Madison County Woman on Free Speech Grounds

Madison, VA - Madison County prosecutors have withdrawn criminal charges brought against a voter who wore a McCain t-shirt to her polling place on Election Day last November. The ACLU of Virginia represented defendant Leigh Purdum, arguing that the First Amendment protected her right to engage in passive political expression while voting.
Leigh Purdum turned herself in to the Madison County Sheriff’s Department in December after receiving a warrant charging her with a Class 1 misdemeanor for violating a law recently interpreted by the State Board of Elections as a ban on political apparel in polling places. The Board of Elections also directed registrars to refer violations to the local prosecutors.
Although many voters wore political attire to the polls on Election Day, Ms. Purdum may be the only person in the state who was charged with committing a crime for doing it.
With support from the ACLU, Virginia’s lawmakers passed legislation this winter explicitly protecting the right of voters to wear political apparel, stickers or buttons in polling places. Although the bill has not yet been signed by the Governor, Madison County Commonwealth’s Attorney George Webb, III reportedly decided to drop the case once he learned that the bill had passed the General Assembly by an overwhelming margin.
“It is still hard to imagine that a Virginia voter faced jail time and a stiff fine for silently expressing her support for the candidate of her choice,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “But with the criminal charges now withdrawn, and the General Assembly changing the law to comply with First Amendment, it looks like everyone is coming to their senses.”
In a separate legal action, the ACLU of Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, and The Rutherford Institute filed a lawsuit in federal court last fall challenging the law under which Ms. Purdum was arrested as a violation of voters’ First Amendment rights. The three free speech organizations represent Jill Borak, of Fairfax County, and Charles Epes, of Richmond, who were told to remove or cover Obama campaign paraphernalia worn to the polls on Election Day. That case will likely be withdrawn if the Governor signs the bill.
The attorneys representing Ms. Purdum were Steve Rosenfield, Sebastian Graber, Jeff Fogel, and ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg.

Contact: Kent Willis, 804-644-8022

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