June 4th, 2013
09:42 PM ET
9 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. Beverly Sparkman

    I think the first lady is right to handle it the way she did! The President is way too polite to hecklers! The world is watching and it is a shame to behave in that way to any elected official and their representatives.

    June 5, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  2. Skip Stealey

    The topic was not what this woman wanted to talk about so she decided her issue was more important that any other thing the First Lady could talk about. Such arrogance!!! The First Lady should have just told security to remove her and NOT said a single word to the woman who INTERRUPTED her. Not only is that impolite, it is just pure arrogance and selfishness to think your issue is far more important that any other issue the First Lady could possibly talk about.
    Yes, we have free speech, we do not have the right to impose our own values and morals on anyone else. We are fighting an entire religion over that very thing now.
    NO law is needed to prevent discrimination over "sexual orientation", people have the right to hire only those people they want around them. If the business owner doesn't want to hire someone with red hair, he has the right not to. Same thing with gays, or any other physical difference. We don't need another civil rights bill, the ones we have are working quite nicely.

    June 5, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  3. Robb

    Ah libs are great. You would cheer if this was Bush or another Republican being heckled. As for the person calling for an executive order, you are naive! The Feds can't touch marriage because it is a state right! Why do you think Obama hasnt done much with the so called common sense legislation he wants even after he threatened Executive Orders? He can't do it! As for the other people cheering Mrs. obama, way to use your pulpit as a bully! Because you are being heckled you threaten to take your things and go home, just like a petulant child......HMMMMM I seem to remember the President saying he would go home if he didnt accomplish certain stuff, and told a reporter maybe "I should just pack up and leave"?! The reason neither of them would leave...THEY ARE MEDIA HOUNDS!!! They love to blab and be in front of the camera. For crying out loud Obama won the election and is still campaigning to the American people? DO YOUR JOB!! Stop blaming Republicans, he had complete govt control for 2 yrs and did NOTHING with it except bribe law makers to pass Obamacare w/o even reading it and now we are reaping what he sewed! WHICH IS HIGHER INSURANCE PREMIUMS!!! What a joke!

    June 5, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  4. Barneyjake

    Right or wrong, why do some people think their cause will be best served by interrupting ANY speaker? It lessens their position and creditability.

    June 5, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  5. Terry

    Of course this is top news on CNN. Too busy ignoring important matters and covering the presidents apple. And her majesty too.
    Get a clue – they care about nobody!

    June 5, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  6. Glauber

    Good for her. It's about time that this juvenile disrespect that's been shown to the president and first lady be countered straight ahead. People used to disagree with the president but respect the office and address the president accordingly. And NO ONE messed with the first lady like that. But these petulant little children, including the dolt of a congressman with his screeching of "You lie!" have unilaterally flushed civility down the drain. Somehow they just can't stand the fact that the GOP, for the first time in nearly 20 years, doesn't get what it wants, every time it wants it the way it did when Bush and Clinton were president and the GOP controlled congress for nearly the entire time. They still can't get used to not always getting their way so they stamp their little feet and behave like ill-bred children.

    June 5, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  7. madelefant

    One of the problems with the idea of "free speech" but don't interrupt me is in reality, most of us have little free speech opportunity. So when people reply that people have free speech but in the proper forum often means effectively no where.

    June 5, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  8. fastball

    Get this through your heads....."Freedom of Speech" was not designed to allow you to utter any amount of stupidness or vileness that happens to be in your mouth at the moment – and get away with it. At some point, you ought to take some personal responsibility for what comes out of your piehole.
    Yes, I might not be able to STOP you from saying what you want – but there's no reason in the world that I have to take it lying down, either. You want to play with fire....bring your asbestos shorts, darling.

    June 5, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  9. lesliee

    Mary, get a life. If you're not gay, why do you care at all?

    June 5, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  10. Robb

    Now being that I said that>>>I believe ALL hecklers need to be silenced during a speech by anyone, it is rude. If you wish to question and so forth then we as citizens need to force anyone in politics and thrusting themselves into the public eye over and over again to answer to questions by us and from us. No plants, no softball questions, just questions that the populous needs answers to!

    June 5, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  11. Jesse


    RESPECT is very important and the FLOTUS should be RESPECTED at all times. I don't blame her for the reaction she showed during her speech. She is not made of stone and she should not have to deal with straight up foolishness from hecklers or anyone else. Michelle Obama has more CLASS than any FLOTUS has ever witness and she is tired of all the silliness that some people bring to these type of events. Michelle is all about business and helping all people become better citizens and productive people in this world. Good for you First Lady Obama. You did the right thing and I am very proud of you. Keep doing what you are doing and don't allow ignorance to slow you down. You are a GREAT Woman and I admire you too the highest degree.

    Gotta give respect to get it, sorry she said she was ashamed to be American I am ashamed she is the First Lady. You should be ashamed of what happens but always proud of our Republic( thats right not a democracy but a damned Republic)

    June 5, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  12. Swami

    Unfortunately, no matter one's reaction ot how Obama handled the situation, the heckler is being rewarded for her outburst. Most people never heard of her group before this incident. for the amount of publicity they are getting out of this, the ticket price of $500-$10,000 is a pretty small cost.

    June 5, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  13. Scott

    WHAT!! A komrade lib heckling Dear Leader's wife! OUTSTANDING! 🙂


    June 5, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  14. n222s

    I don't like the President's policies. That being said, leave the first lady alone. Not because SHE deserves it (she deserves it no less, or more than any other first lady) but because our First Lady needs to be left alone. Were she to hold a position of power in the government, go for it. But when she is giving a speech (yes, they are often political, I know) be a little respectful. Yell at a Barack Obama or a George Bush but leave the First Ladies alone.

    I am a conservative's conservative but give any first lady not involved in real policy a break.

    June 5, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  15. henry2000

    Talk about bullies...One side said election is over, now get away from my face. The other side said I don't care what so ever, make your husband to sign an executive order to give me what I want... payback time for your supporters. Executive order is the way to go now in the Obama era. Everyone of his support expect it and current Congress is USELESS.

    June 5, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  16. Alacrity Fitzhugh

    First off – congrats to the photographer and editor for the "duck lips" photo. That alone made me chuckle. Secondly, I do think the woman was rude for interrupting. She should have waited for a question and answer session at the end. That said, the Dems hate getting cornered on gay rights issues. I think they are afraid that someone will bring up that it was President Clinton that signed the defense of marriage act (look it up!).

    June 5, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  17. Oy

    "Wait, I thought gay activists, indeed all gay people, are above the rules and can do whatever they want. We aren't supposed to hush them because they are an oppressed people. They deserve more than anyone else because everyone is abusive and oppressive to them"

    I didn't realize wanting equal rights is "deserving more than anyone".
    I disagree with the heckler, but I disagree with you even more.
    So hateful.

    June 5, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  18. general tso

    @PaulCat..so, if someone's views are different than yours they are full of hate? You certainly are the poster child for tolerance......Not.

    June 5, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  19. Truth

    I love it. Michelle still has that "how dare you" and "it's my way or no way at all" attitude.
    The best part is she is getting heckled by her own peeps now as well...

    June 5, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  20. Desert1

    Theres a time and place for someone to express their opinion on something,this was not the time and place for the protester to talk about her issues reference to the President signing a bill in reference to her issue,I believe hes done more for gay rights than any other president so far,and interrupting the speaker anywhere is not acceptable,it has nothing to do with freedom of speech period,as far as the protester wanting to provide the future of children to be gay I think we need to let them grow up and decide on that for themselves,they will have the freedom to do it.

    June 5, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  21. n222s

    Pete said; It's just an ignorent ,bigotted probibly paid person put there to do what republicans have done since Pres.Obamas inaugeration.

    Pete, anyone who has difficulty spelling ignorant should probably refrain from calling others "ignorent". You did, however, give me a good laugh.

    June 5, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  22. bb

    CNN....The title should be HECKLER clashes with First Lady.

    It's not like the First Lady went out looking to take down a heckler.

    While you are at it..take down the incendiary articles that are there for nothing other than for extremists to start hurling insults.

    June 5, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  23. Lynda/Minnesota

    To be honest, I've never seen such petty childishness directed at a First Lady of the United States as that which comes from the political right wing of American society.

    Makes one wonder where these folks come from mentally - how they were raised by their own parents, and how they are (or will) be raising their own children.

    June 5, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  24. mission accomplished

    I am so very glad to see the leftists getting some of the very same treatment they have been heaping on others! Suck it up and enjoy it as the rest have had to. Just wait until they start throwing shoes!!

    June 5, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  25. Julie Labrouste

    Equal rights for all, LGBT included, should've happened A VERY LONG TIME AGO and so if people are STILL being treated unequally then politicians deserve to be interrupted since they are not doing their jobs in what is supposed to be a nation of equality. That this was the First Lady counts as well because her comments were political. Stop discriminating and if you don't then you'll continue to hear from the oppressed regardless.

    June 5, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42