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. Missy

    Protester was Way out of line.. Why show up if she must allow any pc allowable crackpot on the planet to interrupt?

    June 5, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  2. al

    Looks like the new pit bottm behavior standard that joe wilson pioneered is becoming a trend. might as well throw away my dress shirts and get some wife beaters, start passing gas in elevators, and stop giving up my seat for pregnant women on the bus. The sad thing Is I believe in her cause, and the previous woman's cause, but now I'm surely turned off to helping their organizations. If this is the voice of new liberalism, I'm gonna have to start my own party. "People for a civilized society", just call us civilians for short.

    June 5, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  3. Nick

    The gay jihad will be heard. Whether you want to listen to them to or not.

    June 5, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  4. Anonymous

    @Aimleft – "Once again, the press takes great glee in reporting on anything that will cause peoples' hackles to rise and further divide the country. I blame them, too, for merriily fueling the unhinged, out-of-control hatred that now defines the so-called "united" states of America."
    You are so right! The media is causing the great division in this country and they want to keep it that way for ratings. They no longer work for the truth and communicate to the people – it is all about sensationalism and keeping the fringes stirred up. The Walter Cronkites of the world are long gone and, sadly, will never return. Maybe this is why this administration is keeping on eye on the media because they distort and spin and don't tell us facts anymore.

    June 5, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  5. kondorky

    I understand the heckler was "moved" by the First Lady when she was talking about her children and the future, but that does not excuse the rude behavior exhibited by Ms. Sturtz. Everytime these hecklers interrupt events they certainly lose my ears as one listening to their cause. There is a time and a place and if you can't respect that, I can't respect your cause.

    June 5, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  6. cedar rapids

    'Chris – Once again an Obama steps on and squashes America's Freedom of Speech! She's identified herself and being one of the Select to be able to speak freely, but not anyone else with a difference of opinion or different agenda than an Obama.'
    Oh grow up chris, you dont care about the heckler's freedom of speech, you just like to moan.

    'Rob – It's about time someone heckled that freeloader! She is ugly inside and out and has been living large off the taxpayer for too long.'
    I think you just displayed your own internal ugliness with that remark.

    June 5, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  7. Complete ignorance

    Kudos to the First Lady!!!! Heckling the First Lady who doesn't set public policy baffles me. Having a beef with the current Administration regarding gay rights issues, when under this Administration the sane gay community has witnessed unprecedented progress in the fight for full equality. What's up with this mentally to bite the hand that feeds you? Many of these protestors seem to be more vocal & hostile now than other Administrations that couldn't have cared less about the gays.

    June 5, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  8. W

    "One of the things I dont do well is this" ?? do you mean speak in public?

    June 5, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  9. karenjay

    Heckling is just plain rude. If you want to say something and be heard, join an action group.

    June 5, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  10. Sid Stewart

    If Mrs. Bush would have said this the media would say she was a coward and insensitive

    June 5, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  11. Jesse


    How dare anyone speak back to the first lady of first ladies! She reacted just like you imagined she would

    Please tell me you are joking, the job of the first lady like all other first lady's and maybe one day the first husband is to stand there and look pretty. She has no power over anyone or anything. Sorry to say it but the best first spouce is seen never heard.

    June 5, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  12. just askin

    she has now stepped into the political arena so she had better develop a thick skin in order to deal with her party's leftists lunatics. personally, i'm enjoying watching both her and obama get heckled by their supporters!

    June 5, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  13. Sid Stewart

    if fact, the stupid protestor would probably crowned king or queen of the day by the liberals

    June 5, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  14. Dennis

    Is the Hecklers concern even a real problem?

    June 5, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  15. lovespandas

    Egad! I cannot wait for those 2 to be out of office!

    June 5, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  16. Morgan Powys

    I'm no fan of the Obamas or Michelle in particular but she handled this wonderfully. I applaud her.

    June 5, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  17. Larry

    It has nothing to do with rights. It has everything to do thinking you have the right to be ill-mannered and discourteous at to further your agenda at any expense.

    June 5, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  18. JS Fox

    How is this a story, much less a Top Story, CNN??

    June 5, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  19. doughnuts

    I don't care what their position is, hecklers need a verbal and/or physical beat-down.
    Carlin did it right, even Reagan did it right.

    You want to shoot your mouth off about something? Rent a venue and a PA system, or go shout on a street-corner.

    June 5, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  20. Maggie

    Just because this country has freedom of speech doesn't mean you can use it whenever, where ever, even if someone else is already speaking. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to be rude. Mrs. Obama did not infringe this woman's rights. She had the opportunity to continue her remarks. Freedom of speech doesn't mean anyone has to listen to you.

    June 5, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  21. Anonymous

    Bias much? Where are the tweets that dont appreciate Michelle's response. If you are going to be a neutral reporting agency you have to do both. That is unless you are afriad of an IRS audit or being left out of a press conference for "selected" members of the press core that report as the WH wishes.

    June 5, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  22. K. Lee

    Moral of this Incident: Never try and heckle a woman who's from the south side of Chicago! Kudos to the First Lady for keeping it cool and classy.

    June 5, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  23. vinster76

    just like her husband, she cant take a bit of criticism. The ego is just too huge to handle a little flak.....She spoke to the woman as if everything is "her way or the highway". Frankly, I am glad the woman heckled her....it shows just how ego-driven, and thin-skinned she is.......thank God we only have three and a half more years with her.....

    June 5, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  24. Phattee

    Regardless of what Michelle Obama does, liberals will react with support, and conservatives will react with thinly-veiled racism.

    June 5, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  25. angel

    You would think a first lady would have a little more class in handling
    this situation.

    June 5, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
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