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. Phillp Bunn

    What a class act. I guess "Hoochie Mama" couldn't take the heat. Maybe she should go back and dance with Jimmy Fallon again. Where is Jackie Kennedy when you need her most?

    June 4, 2013 10:36 pm at 10:36 pm |
  2. HaveBikeWillTravel

    Well there are some things we do not do well is some one who thinks there better than rest of us. If she had any class at all she would have ignored the comments and waited till the woman was removed. But I see its tough when you have face the real world. Her highness has no class using scare tactics.

    June 4, 2013 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  3. Michelle Obama

    Oh no you di'n't!

    June 4, 2013 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  4. HenryMiller

    Contrary to her own apparent opinion, Michelle is not Queen.

    June 4, 2013 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  5. Say What

    Because Obama hasn't done enough for LGBT rights???

    June 4, 2013 10:37 pm at 10:37 pm |
  6. Steve

    What a loser! Go ahead Michelle, take your ball & go home. At least she didn't plead ignorance, like her hubby always does....

    June 4, 2013 10:38 pm at 10:38 pm |
  7. george hamer

    It's not a matter if I like the current administration or not, point is, show some respect. The woman should have been asked to leave. If we, as adults can not contain our outburst, how do we suspend the student for the same actions? It's time as a people we STOP making excuses for bad behavior. If we allow ourselves to "act the fool", our children can only believe it's acceptible behavior.

    June 4, 2013 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  8. Commonsense122

    She doesn't do confrontation well?

    June 4, 2013 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  9. Ed1

    Thought you were going to cry for a minute.

    June 4, 2013 10:40 pm at 10:40 pm |
  10. Lindalou

    The Obama camp has supported gay rights from the very beginning. Bad move by GetEqual to harrass someone in their corner.

    June 4, 2013 10:40 pm at 10:40 pm |
  11. Angry American

    Awwwwz, poor baby.

    June 4, 2013 10:40 pm at 10:40 pm |
  12. shay

    Everyone deals with disrespect in different ways. I call this reaction: DONT confuse me with the other, Obama.

    June 4, 2013 10:41 pm at 10:41 pm |
  13. RZ70

    I'm not a big fan of our two party system (or however many parties you want to call it... it's still a completely disfunctional way to elect a government and run a country), so I can't say I'm too broken up about a heckler at a fund raiser for one of the major political parties. However, I like the way the First Lady handled it. I'm sure people were there a lot more to hear her speak than a heckler.

    June 4, 2013 10:41 pm at 10:41 pm |
  14. Hunter

    Too funny!! First lady has a hissy and says shut her up or I'm leaving!! If she can't take it she should get out of the business (I believe the exact saying is "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." I guess when she isn't being worshipped she doesn't know how to react. What a cry baby.

    June 4, 2013 10:43 pm at 10:43 pm |
  15. Jon S.

    I guess Mrs. Obama hasn't "EVOLVED" enough yet.

    June 4, 2013 10:43 pm at 10:43 pm |
  16. S.B. Stein

    Was it really necessary to do that to the First Lady? She has no real ability to change policy.

    June 4, 2013 10:44 pm at 10:44 pm |
  17. Terry

    Everyone is turning on them. Obama is the WORST President ever. Can't wait for his term to end ... or to be ended.
    They don't support Gays or anyone else beside themselves!
    Someday God will strike lightening when they go to a 'Christian' church too!

    June 4, 2013 10:46 pm at 10:46 pm |
  18. Padraig

    I am not a fan of Michelle Obama but the heckler was wrong in the case of dsturbing her. Now Michelle Obama was run with the "you or her" stance to the audience.

    For those who think she would be a good President this should be considered. A heckler is really nothing in comparison of what the pressure that any President will face. She did failded on this account.

    June 4, 2013 10:46 pm at 10:46 pm |
  19. retphxfire

    I love Mrs. Obama and not knowing how long the heckler was allowed to interrupt the speech, I do wonder if this was a tizzy or if it WAS allowed to continue much too long.

    June 4, 2013 10:47 pm at 10:47 pm |
  20. Respect goes both ways...

    Hard to tell what really happened. I am gay, and I support the first amendment, but lets have a fair debate and let people get their chance to speak, and have some respect that goes both ways but not without saying, this is the First Lady we are talking about.

    June 4, 2013 10:47 pm at 10:47 pm |
  21. phylllis north

    Bad form by the protester.Separately, I wonder how often the first lady does fundraisers?It is a long time until the next election where she might succeed her husbabd.

    June 4, 2013 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  22. Charlotte

    Michelle was invited to speak and she deserves the courtesy of letting her speak. If the heckler was actually so persistent that it disrupted the speech, then I don't see anything wrong with the response as described.

    June 4, 2013 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  23. Heet

    LOL! @ thin skin.

    Wonder what the reaction was when it was "bad hair" week in the media. "Im not playing anymore and im taking my ball with me :'(

    June 4, 2013 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  24. eflows

    Even though I agree with the protester's position, I'm really getting fed up with people on all sides of the political spectrum who feel entitled to heckle and disrupt just because they think they're right.

    June 4, 2013 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  25. Andrew

    "If you don't agree with me, I'm leaving!" ~ Michelle Obama

    June 4, 2013 10:55 pm at 10:55 pm |
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