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. Bill

    Don't talk smack to Her Majesty, she's far too awesome to deal with it! Probably stressed her out so much that she'll need to take another million dollar vacation!!

    June 5, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  2. JSA

    While the heckler's concerns are worthwhile, the time to discuss them was in the meet-and-greet after Michelle Obama's speech, not during. Speakers deserve the respect of being listened to while speaking, and people with concerns deserve the respect of being listened to in the meet-and-greet that normally follows.

    June 5, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  3. shawn v

    Why are they called hecklers? The people that are interrupted never want to answer questions about what real issues that are happening now. Dancing around certain subjects, like they are unimportant, is what really needs to be addressed. How can our leaders get away with dodging such important issues

    June 5, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  4. Bermille

    The problem with those strokes of the pen, they can be taken away by the next presidents pen.

    June 5, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  5. LB

    not a fan of hecklers, it's disrespectful, but First Lady – what happened to free speech?!? another example that Obama's don't want ANYONE to steal their spotlight.

    June 5, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  6. MikeMongo

    Bullying and belittling fellow citizens is not something I endorse in a President or his wife. We have enough of that in our American culture without the First Couple acting no better....

    June 5, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  7. Anonymous

    Hey jean, I too can remember when I wasn't all that PROUD of this U-S-A! can U Dig It??? Maybe NOT, obviously you lived a charmed life, I bet You're WASP or PWT!!!

    June 5, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  8. headspinlabs

    It's plain and simple – Mrs. Obama was interrupted by a rude person with no manners.

    June 5, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  9. Big Bird Johnson

    This woman acts like many women that share my skin color (black). Aggressive and Arrogant.

    June 5, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  10. Wake up People!


    Me too. To be frank, I'm still not that proud.

    June 5, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  11. nuclear mike

    Gee, the 1st Lady needs to come to a few movies with us to heckle her own sisters who talk thru ever movie out loud, her Royal Highness needs to come down amongst all of us commoners and accept other people disagreeing out loud with us all the time about the IRS...IMPEACHMENT will teach her a good lesson on real power!

    June 5, 2013 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  12. Cammie

    Tata says: "White House is getting more ghetto. First Lady of the united state of America should NEVER engage in verbal fussing. I read on here "their fab". NOT. they so FAB that they have times our debt by 3. More then dork bush did. Ghetto fist bumping White House. So disappointed in our country right now."

    What's ghetto is the username, Tata and the ghetto fist-bumping began with former President Bush fist-bumping Santa Clause when he presided over the lighting of the White House Christmas tree Dec 4, 2008, ghetto "chest-bumping" Airmen and ghetto "shoulder rubbing" Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merke and President Obama is just showing his BI-PARTISANSHIP in following George Bush's WH tradition. So don't hate...just cooperate.The TEApublican Party has no time to waste in re-branding.

    June 5, 2013 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  13. shawn v

    I dont think that these subjects should be adressed off camera where anything could be said and/or filtered or censored. These "leaders need to put themselves in front of people who are not scared to ask the real questions of what is happening now. No more speeches that are written by who know how many different people. Those people are not the President and we want his answers. Not a speech that is written by people trying to seemingly make sure certain questions are not answered but instead talked around as if it is intended to throw our attention off of what is important.

    June 5, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  14. aaron

    The first lady should've told her to hush up....or she'd support a ban on pool tables and power tools for ladies.

    June 5, 2013 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  15. Kevin B

    Why are Liberals always "heckled", and Conservatives are asked "Tough Questions"......

    June 5, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  16. Publius Novus

    Many of these comments are directed to issues of free speech. Hecklers in general, and this incident in particuar, have nothing at all to do with free speech. Freedom of speech involves limits on government coercion of speech. It does not guarantee the right to interrupt the speaker or the right of the speaker to speak without interruption. Those are simply issues of manners and good order. If Michelle calls down the Secret Service to silence the speaker, then it's a free speech issue. That didn't happen here.

    June 5, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  17. UDidntBuildThat

    "When I speak, all u all need to shut up"

    June 5, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  18. shawn v

    I dont know about everyone else, but I want a president who has the courage to come out in front of people to answer questions himself. No more written speeches that are designed to comfort us because it isnt working. Everytime i see a leader come out with a prepared speech i see a coward who is affraid of his or her image and is affraid to really address any issue with clarity

    June 5, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  19. ImIrish

    marty king

    I have been alive long enough to go back as far as LBJ and I have never, ever witnessed people acting so hostile, undisciplined, and disrespectful as with what I have seen over the Obama years. You people believe you can act and say whatever it is you wish, I guess because the President and the First Lady have more melanin in their skin than previous Presidents. It's despicable and disgusting; in fact, it is downright embarrassing. Americans show their hind end, with no class at all, as they mistreat the First Lady and say reprehensible things about our President.
    If this were another Country, you racists would be thrown in jail. Michelle Obama has been nothing less than gracious and she has served the position of First Lady in a dignified fashion.


    I was a kid when LBJ was in office (same age as Caroline Kennedy, in fact), and I am sorry to say that you are very myopic in your perspective. Presidents on both sides have been acted towards with hostility, rudeness and disrespect for years. It has nothing to do with the fact that the Obamas are black. It has everything to do with an uncivilized sociiety that is becoming ruder by the day. Road rage is rampant with people who are mad at the world for whatever reason. People interrupt others in mid-sentence. People with cell phones speak in normal (or louder!) conversational tones wherever they are, without regard for where they are and without regard for anyone else. Ever been in a restaurant where someone loudly speaks on their cell phone for 10 minutes or more, interrupting your dinner? Ever been to one of your kid's sports events where parents call other kids names or, worse, end up in a fist fight with another parent? I was taught manners. No matter how much I agree or disagree with politicians, I am not rude. It really is a shame, and embarrassing, that people have become so uncivil.

    June 5, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  20. JONES

    Regardless of race, I think she's arrogant. What happened to free speech? Obviously, the concept does not apply to certain people.

    June 5, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  21. Shari

    I have never seen such disrespect shown toward a President and First Lady until this administration. President Obama has had to put up with constant disrespect, even from reporters (who should know better). But to heckle the First Lady, who does not make policy, is just downright rude and disrespectful.

    June 5, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  22. stay classy protestors

    isnt the obamas like full force behind this? so why would you interrupt someone on your side bec shes not on the topiic you want to talk about for this day..this is the prob with protestors on any arguement..they cant accept ppl have different opinions or in this case just stupid..your gay..cool great who cares im straight but i dont shout it to all of the world

    June 5, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  23. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    First lady clashes with protester; threatens to leave event

    It was emotional... ALL you need to know.

    Television cameras were not allowed inside.

    The MOST TRANSPARENT administration in american history.

    June 5, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  24. UDidntBuildThat

    headspinlabs-It's plain and simple – Mrs. Obama was interrupted by a rude person with no manners.
    It's plain and simple – Mrs. Obama was interrupted by a TYPICAL LIBERAL person with no manners.

    Remember it was Barack Obama that instructed for all the liberals to "argue with neighbors, get in their face". Funny thing is the Obamas forgot to say "except when we the King and Queen are speaking ofcourse".

    June 5, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  25. Hamburger Jones

    "she'll need to take another million dollar vacation!!" Aw, it's adorable that you actually still believe in the million dollar vacation! Blind faith in the twenty-first century.

    June 5, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
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