June 4th, 2013
09:42 PM ET
10 years ago

First lady clashes with protester; threatens to leave event

(CNN) – First lady Michelle Obama had a rare run-in with an audience heckler Tuesday during a fund-raising event in Washington for the Democratic National Committee.

The outburst from the crowd distracted Obama at a point in her speech when she was speaking emotionally about children and their futures, prompting her to threaten to leave if the woman wanted to keep speaking.

"One of the things I don't do well is this," she said, according to a pool reporter who attended the event. Television cameras were not allowed inside.

Obama walked toward the protester, saying she could "listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice," according to the pool report.

The protester was identified as Ellen Sturtz of the gay rights group GetEQUAL. She was calling on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors.

Sturtz was escorted out of the event, held at a private residence in northwest Washington. Tickets for the fund-raiser ranged from $500 to $10,000.

The White House, as it does with many events, released a transcript of her remarks Tuesday night. While the transcript includes the beginning of the first lady's response to the protester–"One of the things that I don't do well is this. Do you understand?"–the transcript does not quote the exchange between the two, which happened away from the microphone.

Early Wednesday morning, Sturtz said in a statement released by GetEQUAL that she had "lived and worked in the closet, hiding who I was in order to earn a living."

"I had planned to speak tonight with DNC officials but, as the First Lady was talking about our childrens' future and ensuring that they have everything they need to live happy and productive lives, I simply couldn't stay silent any longer," Sturtz added. "I'm looking ahead at a generation of young people who could live full, honest, and open lives with the stroke of the President's pen, and I was hoping that the First Lady would share my concern for all of our young people."

The interruption came less than two weeks after President Obama faced a Code Pink protester who loudly advocated for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison during the president's national security speech.

The president, who was making his remarks before cameras and a large audience, handled the situation differently than his wife's confrontation Tuesday night.

"This is part of free speech, is you being able to speak but also you listening and me being able to speak, alright?" Obama said upon the interruption. The president has used the tactic before when interrupted.

The woman, peace activist Medea Benjamin, kept up her protest, which also included a rebuke against American drone strikes that have killed civilians. Obama eventually diverted from his prepared remarks to address the situation head-on.

"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," he said. "Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said and obviously she wasn't listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong."

READ MORE: Obama heckler: 'Don't call it heckling'

As with most controversial moments, the first lady's exchange with the protester was met with mixed reviews on Twitter, but many embraced her approach.



Filed under: Gay rights • Michelle Obama
soundoff (1,039 Responses)
  1. Gerry

    This should not be viewed a political. It is just sheer good manners to shut up when someone else is speaking. The First Lady was very correct in the stance she took.

    June 5, 2013 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  2. Justin

    How about making tickets cheaper to these things, all I'm seeing is people paying outrageous prices to hear a woman's opinion. If you are concerned about the future, stop limiting speeches like this be only allowed to people that can afford to throw 500 dollars for a ticket. As for the woman that interrupted her, I don't care, that's how the United States works. People are going to protest and win for years to come until a single person can't get out of bed without someone complaining about which side they got out of.

    June 5, 2013 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  3. Anonymous

    Kudos to the First Lady! There is absolutely no respect anymore from the adults in this country and this is what we are teaching our children – sad, very sad! Gone are the days when politicians addressed each other as fellow countrymen and showed their respect for each other.

    June 5, 2013 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  4. Christina Honigberg

    I am sure in the past other first ladies have been heckled and obviously they were able to handle handle the situation .

    June 5, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  5. Joseph

    Funny how Obama called the gay NBA a hero for coming out but won't help any of the gay community, just like someone said previously; he used you guys to win and now he's done with you.

    June 5, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  6. charlie

    Addressing a couple of the statements posted here:

    Hecklers are always out of line, and out of place. They should never be tolerated.

    The President is doing his job even though he is blocked at every turn by the Republicans because they cannot stand the idea that a black man is in charge. I can't believe people are still stupid enough to call him Muslim. The criticisms and hate hurled at the President and Mrs. Obama on this forum are all just repeats of outright lies that the posters heard Tea Partiers say on TV. No original thought or desire to actual investigate things on their own. What is really sad is that they think these are their ideas instead of ones that have been fed to them.

    June 5, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  7. Malory Archer


    She needs to handle it better than that. Seriously, I hope she gets better at handling hecklers.


    She handled it better than most of us would have, and infinitely better than Chris Christie handles constituents who ask questions that he doesn't want to answer.

    June 5, 2013 10:17 am at 10:17 am |
  8. Lynda/Minnesota

    I understand there are those that think heckling is the thing to do. I don't. It is petty and childish to the extreme. No matter who is speaking at the podium, be they the President, the First Lady, or a member of the "other" side of the aisle, they each deserve the respect to heard by those paying the big dollars to hear what they paid big bucks to hear without interruption from those who apparently think their own opinions are so all important that those opinions need to be shouted out in angry banter and intention seeking glory.

    June 5, 2013 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  9. Catherine

    Good for her. More poiticians on both sides of the aisle should do that. No one goes to these things to listen to some rude heckler. There is a time an place for everything and heckling someone's wife is just trying for 15 min. of fame. What is she supposed to do about it? As for 'hiding' your true self, I don't discuss my sexuality in the workplace. I discuss work. I don't care what the people in my workplace do either as long as it doesn't involve force or children. Even then, those are matters left to the police.

    June 5, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  10. Malory Archer


    She needs to handle it better than that. Seriously, I hope she gets better at handling hecklers.


    She handled it better than most of us would (I would have told the heckler to please don't interrupt when I'm speaking; it's rude) – and infinitely better than Chris Christie handles constituents who ask questions he doesn't like.

    June 5, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  11. debbie

    You were gay before the Obamas got in office, but all of a sudden you want them to do something about it but never pressured the Bush family abut the issue. Stop being so hypocritical to this family simply because they are of a darker race and it kills you all to know he over this country and some of the things we do. DEAL WITH IT.

    June 5, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  12. sifto

    sounds like MO lost her cool –like both Obamas do when they are challenged by anyone–they throw their own under the bus....

    June 5, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  13. Christina Honigberg

    I am sure in the past some first ladies have been heckled but obviously they were able to handle the situation .

    June 5, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  14. anchorite

    What does Sturtz expect? That one man can sign something and make the world all better? Attitudes have to change, and no law, certainly no executive order, is going to do it. Obama doesn't even control how money is spent, Congress does.

    June 5, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  15. PETE

    Looks like Michelle is as prone to temper tantrums as her husband is.

    If you can't take the heat.....

    June 5, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  16. Tonya Boatwright

    FLOTUS is about time for someone to stand up to heckler who is being rude. Being disrespectful is how you get attention, but FLOTUS did the right thing.

    June 5, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  17. ugh

    A taste of their own medicine?

    June 5, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  18. JMBIII

    Ridiculous .. period.. I fully support free speech but that has to come with a level of respect. When someone is standing at a podium/mic for a fundraiser, you keep your mouth shut and show respect. Same for the clown that yelled "liar" when Pres Obama was giving the State of the Union address several years back. We want other countries to respect us but our own citizens act this way ?? Its disrespectful and totally ridiculous.. It makes me sick that anybody thinks acting like this is ok.. This woman needs a sit down and taught how to act respectfully.. My 8 year old knows how to act better than this.. totally pathetic..

    June 5, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  19. Gay has no class

    No surprises, here. Although I'm no fan of the Obamas, Michelle handled this the way I would.

    June 5, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  20. jkflipflop

    Mrs. Obama is one classy lady.

    June 5, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  21. jeremy

    So she chooses to heckle the administration that has done more for equality and gay rights than any administration in history? Nice job ya dolt!

    June 5, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  22. gladitsnight

    Obviously, this woman has a narcissistic personality disorder, believing she is above others and does not have to follow the rules of society.

    June 5, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  23. Harbinger

    The spirit behind this behavior will not be satisfied until it has completely torn down the old to build the new...solve, coagula.... get ready for the androgyny...

    June 5, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  24. Analystgirl

    Ellen there is a time and a place for being rude and disruptive....it is called kindergarten. Grow up and show some respect. You get what you give. You are giving no respect, so what exactly did you expect to get in return?

    June 5, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  25. Jack Merriweather

    Freedom of speech works. Each party has a right to speak or leave. I wish her husband learned this very important point...the constitution, the billing of rights.

    June 5, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
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