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. starchy

    "I don't do this well?" What is it you don't do well Mrs. Obama? You don't take candid thoughts from people who's point of view differs from yours? You don't know how to speak the truth and address issues other than those you have prepared speaking notes in front of you to help you answer?

    You are not a great woman, unles being a great woman encompasses your trips on the U.S. taxpayer dollars to Europe for extravigant shopping sprees in Paris and Milan. You are merely living off the teet of your husbands' presidency. Elanore Roosevelt, now that was a great First Lady. She even conducted herself as a lady.

    June 5, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  2. Mayor Internet

    "Let them eat cake!"

    –Michelle Obama, Queen of America

    June 5, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  3. Drew

    I like Michelle, but this was handled poorly. Just a "thank you for your concern" and remain quit until the protestor is removed, wouldve been a cleaner , more professional approach. but stomping your feet and threatening to leave a fundraiser, in which many people donated big $$$$, is just immature.

    June 5, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  4. no comment rating lol

    yea another "politicalticker" article with ANYTHING to do with the WH so no comments can be voted on.

    June 5, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  5. LMAOatobama

    she should have left the event. now if we can just get the to both leave the White House the country can heal.

    June 5, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  6. Joe in Kalispell

    Sure she always has the option to leave. After all she isn't elected to any position and has no rights or responsibilities. If she wants them then run for an elected office.

    I like what the U.K. does when they have a regular PM question time. We should implement that here too.

    June 5, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |

    this lady and anyone else who suffers from discrimination needs to initiate a lawsuit. It's illegal so instead of blaming the Obama's when employers break the law she should get a lawyer and file a suit. That would have been a better use of the money she spent to be rude and disrespectful. There's a proper forum for everyones gripes this was not the forum for her personal agenda it was about education and children.

    June 5, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  8. Anonymous

    Sickening how so many of the "haters" on here condone the heckling. But, if it happens to someone you support the world would be ending. Get a grip – heckling is wrong period. We really need to rethink our behavior in this country and get back to common decency.

    June 5, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  9. Nick

    I'm guessing CNN is breathing a sigh of relief that they have some fluff for their main headline instead of the IRS, DOJ, Benghazi, and EPA scandals.

    June 5, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  10. Chase

    I would have loved to been a fly on the chair between them, to hear what Mrs. Obama had to say "off mic".

    June 5, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  11. jwil6902

    Two points here:

    First, this administration has been doing more for LGBT equality than any before it so to heckle the First Lady over this issue is blindingly asinine. Not only does Michelle Obama not have any ability to set policy but she's actually ON THE SAME SIDE AS THE HECKLER! The heckler is stupid, opinionated, lacks self control and has no grasp of how the political process works.

    Second, for those complaining that the heckler's right to free speech was impeded then you clearly have not read the constitution. The first amendment doesn't grant you the right to be a raging douchebag, it merely restricts congress from passing laws that censor you. Here is a refresher for those that are in desperate need of a civics lesson: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." If you insist on making points about 'the freedom of speech' then please be prepared to cite what laws have been passed by congress that prohibit heckling or kindly shut up. Thanks.

    June 5, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  12. ceg10

    I hate hecklers! What there needs to be is a procedure to get heard. Make it respectful and to the point! Otherwise, I think when you interrupt the President or the significant other, your issue better be more important than the issue at hand. Children are first and most important for our future. Gay right issues belong in the courts.

    The comment she made about hiding in the closet at work, really? You are suppose to be professional. Anything outside of that is offensive. People really do need to know what you do or like.

    June 5, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  13. Anne-Florida

    Both the Obamas, along with the Democrat party, have been huge supporters of gay rights. Michelle has a right to speak at a functiion and the heckler needed to be removed. You right-wing tea party people just love to post bad comments for both Obamas. Go have lunch, maybe you will develop heartburn. The Obamas are here to stay. He won the election, get over it!!

    June 5, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  14. Kelly Kent-Parcell

    I don't think the First Lady should have even addressed the heckler. I'm not for gay rights; it's wrong according to God's law and I'm going with that law versus our laws.

    June 5, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  15. pchelp, Juneau, AK

    If a protester wishes to make a public statement they should do so outside the event, not by interrupting it. Interrupting the event is simply rude and, IMO, gains them no support. At least I can't support a heckler no matter how I feel about their 'cause'.

    June 5, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  16. trueab

    Living and working in the closet?!? Yeah right!! She's the most obvious lesbian i've ever seen.

    June 5, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  17. Ryan

    Queen Obama! How dare people interrupt her when she is speaking! She went to an Ivy League school dangit!!!

    June 5, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  18. Norm

    Sounds like security at the event was lacking.
    She shouldn't have been put in that position.
    Im sure the people paying to be there felt the same way.
    Im surprised no one turned around and clocked the crazy person making trouble.
    I think I would have.

    June 5, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  19. Reasonably

    Way to make your cause suddenly irrelevant and backseat to your actions.

    June 5, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  20. dale

    If she will leave instead of being heckled. Maybe we should heckle her more often and she will leave permanently.

    June 5, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  21. Ordinary Average American

    This country is chock full of selfish, rude people and this lady is one of them. Completely disrespectful, no matter who's speaking!

    June 5, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  22. Christopher

    Bring back Laura Bush.

    June 5, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  23. Yeah Right


    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.

    Chris, it was a private fundraiser. Why don't you check into what went on during the last administration when free speech "cages" were set up to house anyone with an anti administration sign, tee shirt, etc showed up to express their views at a public event? Maybe Mrs Obama should have had the heckler beat up and arrested, that would be GOP SOP.

    June 5, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  24. david friedman

    total lack of class for both involved, but moreso for the First Lady

    June 5, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  25. sandra

    no one wants to hear what she has to say andd sure do not want to hear her husbands lies . get them both out of the white house . only blind people want listen .

    June 5, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
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