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. Anonymous

    Oh please. I don't want to hear any of this freedom of speech crap. ALL HECKLERS ARE RUDE! They need to be checked and quick. There's a time and a place to address issues but it IS NOT during ANYONE'S speech! The hecklers don't mind being rude so why is everyone acting like they have to be handled with kids gloves?? LISTEN OR LEAVE! Hand clap to Michelle!!

    June 5, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  2. jamison

    Hecklers are just plain RUDE INDIVIDUALS and should be instantly EJECTED from the room.

    June 5, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  3. Jeb

    If she had waited to ask her question instead of trying to shout down the first lady like som tea bagger, she would have probably gotten an answer.

    June 5, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  4. dax

    These people do not know how to be the first family of the US. Can you imagine the headlines if Laura Bush had behaved like that in the face of a protestor?

    June 5, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  5. oh Jeez

    Figures, her majesty would have her detained. That's part of the new rule i'm sure, free speech, unless your in the presence of Obezie and his tyrant minions. Then your speech is only as free as they say it is.

    June 5, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  6. northerstar

    Free Speech does not entitle you to cause EVERYONE else to listen to your disruptive rants. Hecklers are just rude to everyone else attending and disruptive. Free speech means that the gov't cannot silence you but it does not mean that the people attending a meeting can't shut you up (only the gov't). Their right to hear what is being said at a meeting outweighs your right to be rude and heckle the speaker. Its too bad that people to want to use the constitution to protect their right don't actually UNDERSTAND it.

    June 5, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  7. Vickie P

    Free Speach... But whatever your concerns or thoughts may be; there is a TIME and PLACE for all things. This was not the forum for your bedroom drama.

    June 5, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  8. dave the butcher

    A lot of typical conservative replies here.
    It's only freedom of speech if people are being rude to a Democrat.
    If this was Laura Bush they'd be calling for the Heckler to be sent to prison for being a "terarist sympathizer".
    She's the first lady, and deserves the respect as such, I don't care if she's a Liberal Commie or a Nazi Conservative.

    June 5, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  9. anonymous

    First lady acting so vulgar! I am disgusted by how she handled herself. What a shame! They do not teach good manners in The White House apparently!

    June 5, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  10. Wake up People!

    @I'm Irish.
    While I agree with you to a certain extent, if you don't think the hatred toward the Obama's has nothing to do with the melanin in their skin, you might need to check out a Tea Party rally. Also ask yourself how many other Presidents have had their birth questioned, their college transcripts questioned, have had their pictures photoshopped to portray them as animals? I could go on but why?

    And don't get me started on the nasty names. I applaud the FLOTUS, it's not easy....

    June 5, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  11. Ricardo Martinez

    More like a Tea Moroon, Mrs. Obama, I love it, thank you for not listening to these idiots. Thinking the have the right to disturb the peace.

    June 5, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  12. lola

    Lz Granderson's believing it's ok to interrupt if you have a "valid reason", is incredibly self centered. How much would he enjoy a tea partier showing up to heckle his time at the mike calling so they could demand smaller government (because it's so immediately important in their mind).
    We all have our important issues- not necessarily the same. It's too bad if yours isn't on the agenda, but like 5 year olds in kindergarten learn, public discourse requires we behave within the rules. We all have that sense of fairness in us and someone interrupting like this pushes all our buttons. It makes people unsympathetic to your opinion since you are bullying the convo. You turn people away from you. I personally think this woman wants "personal attention " and publicity more than she wants to just work and work and work as necessary to bring these changes about politically.

    I agree with gay rights, completely, but I don't think it supercedes the issue of childhood poverty and that you have a "moral right" to interject your opinion on the people who paid money to listen to Michelle. I want the kids to have their voice too.

    June 5, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  13. Strangways

    if hecklers at VIP events were treated the same way fans are when they rush the stage to grab a rockstar, I think incidents of heckling would drop 90%.

    June 5, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  14. Scott

    The contiuing demostration of Obama, Michelle and Biden not being able to handle themselves when they go off prepareded PR scripts. Bush had a throw thrown at him in Baghdad and dis not miss a beat. None of the urrent administration can handle their own Liberal supporters. They are disgusting.

    June 5, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  15. Obama Broke

    Didn't see this kind of complaining about hecklers from the left when Code Pink was interrupting conservatives every chance they got. You all started it with Code Pink and Act Up but now that it's turned on your Messiah and His Queen Bee you all don't like it. It's the chickens coming home to roost.

    June 5, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  16. UDidntBuildThat

    jamison-Hecklers are just plain RUDE INDIVIDUALS and should be instantly EJECTED from the room.
    Unless the person being heckled is a republican, then all bets are off and should be allowed to continue. To quote FLOTUS' husband:

    June 5, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  17. sly

    Way to go Michelle.

    You are the most powerful and the most widely respected woman on Earth.

    Way to hold your own.

    June 5, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  18. The Facts

    When Michelle OBAMA said... "All this for a DAMN Flag"... I would of applauded the army wife standing next to her slapping Michelle Obama across her face.

    June 5, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  19. gfbf

    Excuse me but this heckler is a typical LIBERAL! She should get her way because she feels it is the right way.

    June 5, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  20. Scott

    Bush got a shoe thrown at him. Sorry. Im having issues with wireless due to Ft Detrick. Hard to catch grammer with the delays.

    June 5, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  21. cbp

    If a heckler had been rude to Laura Bush she would have responded in her own way. However, most people would have defended her. First Ladies are not elected to their office and they take on causes that they wish to support. Mrs. Obama has stated her feelings that she would find ti difficult if someone chose to heckle her. THis woman was not invited to speak at that time and it was her turn to listed. If she wished to ask the First Lady a question she could have done so at the end.

    We all have a right to free speech but we also have the obligation to listen to the Speaker and then to respond. This woman's explanation does not cut the mustard. For those who feel it necessary to be nasty and disrespectful in their comments I would tell them to find a way to listen, understand what is said. You should give your opinion but it is not necessary to resort to name calling and rude remarks. CNN needs to set the bar higher for comments.

    June 5, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  22. Hamburger Jones

    "IMPEACHMENT will teach her a good lesson on real power!" Look up that word "impeach" and see if it actually means you can get rid of a president because he makes you shake with impotent rage by being black. Last I heard, it didn't. There's a reason nobody but clowns like you is talking impeachment.

    June 5, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  23. jaana

    don't question the dictatorship.. or the new SS (the IRS) will be after you after you ars scolded for not standing quietly in line to be handed your opinion while they bend you over and take everything you have...

    June 5, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  24. jaana

    don't question the dic tat or ship.. or the new SS (the IRS) will be after you after you ars scolded for not standing quietly in line to be handed your opinion while they bend you over and take everything you have...

    June 5, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  25. Renne

    GONE 'HEAD AND SAY IT AGAIN SIS! What's wrong with the WORLD MOMMA, PEOPLE ACTIN LIKE THEY AIN'T GOT NO MOMMAS????!!! (B.E.P.) And no good manners, values and morals as well! I'M GLAD MICHELLE PUT THAT HEIFER IN HER PLACE! SO FUKIN RUDE! Hell really does exist on Earth! SMMFH!

    June 5, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
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