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. Fair is Fair


    Way to go Michelle.

    You are the most powerful and the most widely respected woman on Earth.
    Ummmmm... nope. Not even close.

    June 5, 2013 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  2. Caleb

    She's a very good first lady, but she needs to learn some tact from her husband. You dont deal with a protestor by saying "you either listen to me or you can take the mic and I am leaving". You've got to keep it together better than that. Especially 5 years in on the job.

    June 5, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    Very classy Michelle....Not.

    June 5, 2013 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  4. D. Fischer

    Who is this reporting? Where did they learn? This is the worst reporting ever. Oh wait, this is CNN. Makes sense.

    But I say well handled by Obama. If you want to interrupt and yell things, then sure, come on up, but in that case, this is your speech, your time, you're in charge, I'll go.

    June 5, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  5. Dan of NY

    Re: HamJones, DavM, Scott, JohnM, Stan: Typical Republican drivel and nonsense.

    June 5, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  6. DW

    Recall that during the reign of GWB, ALL public speaking events (by the president, vice, and most GOPers) were restricted to include just those who had been screened and proved to be loyal Republicans. The Obamas admit most citizens in to their talks, expecting civility. Apparently, many Americans are not.

    June 5, 2013 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  7. evan

    Must be a REEEAAAALLLLYYY slow news day for CNN....or both of their journalists are off for the summer.

    CNN......incendiary stories about the First Lady getting heckled do you zero favors.......Hire a real team of journalists!

    June 5, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  8. Wake up People!

    @Udidn't build that.

    First of all, you do not know me. Second, please shut up. I learned to never get into a war of words with an unarmed idiot. You and your ilk are so pathetic and transparent that it's sickening.

    I reiterate, no other First Family has EVER been disrespected in such a manner.

    June 5, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  9. mike

    "listen to me or you can take the mic"

    Actually, I think that's a brilliant way to handle it. Wanna disrupt an event? Then come up and let everyone see you...put some skin in the game, instead of being a random face in the crowd.

    June 5, 2013 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  10. mike

    "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?"

    Laura Bush is a Stepford wife who never actually put herself in such situations. She was a piece of breathing furniture.

    June 5, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  11. Dee G.

    Mrs. Obama, well played, ma'am. Well played.

    June 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  12. Ican Heare

    Hecklers are part of the deal for this kind of seat of power. Thousands have graciously understood and dealt with this. But projecting at the audience that they need to choose between her or the heckler speaks a lot to her frame of mind. It might be indicative that she is suffering from a personality disorder (i.e. – borderline and narcissistic traits, check out NIMH page on "borderline personality disorder").

    June 5, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  13. Malory Archer

    Ican Heare

    Hecklers are part of the deal for this kind of seat of power. Thousands have graciously understood and dealt with this. But projecting at the audience that they need to choose between her or the heckler speaks a lot to her frame of mind. It might be indicative that she is suffering from a personality disorder (i.e. – borderline and narcissistic traits, check out NIMH page on "borderline personality disorder").


    Or maybe after FIVE YEARS of never ending whining and crying from your ilk she finally had enough. Frankly, she was far more polite than I would have been, and head and shoulders above the way Chris Christie behaves when confronted by someone with a differing opinion.

    June 5, 2013 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  14. Bill Zimmerman

    Rudeness from a heckler or any other bystander doesn't have to be accepted ... PERIOD !! Ta 'ell with "political correctness"

    June 5, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  15. Catori

    For the record – not a protester. Someone who had their own agenda & wanted free air time.

    June 5, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  16. Tonya

    People paid 500 – 10,000 to hear her speak. If I paid this amount for anyone to speak, I want to hear that individual speak. It was RUDE of the protester to basically tell the others to F Off! You give your cause a bad name. The room of people who would have supported you, now only want to discredit you and your cause. Plus the protester was dealing with her own issues as oppose to the world's issues.

    June 5, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  17. Loki

    I'm a conservative and say "Michelle....throw that stupid mutant pedophile out". Lean forward.

    June 5, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  18. Jean2

    It is about time. We live in a civilized society!!

    June 5, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  19. Brian

    I would use this approach:
    Protester "blah blah blah"
    Me: "Are you addressing me? Then we can meet after this event"
    Me: "Are you addressing the crowd? Then show of hands on who wants to hear it"
    Me: Are you addressing the press? Then book a press conference"
    If no progress then get them escorted out.

    June 5, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  20. Steveo

    These are good times for America – no wars, stock market going to 17,000, and 3 more years of a great President.
    No wars? Really? We are still in Afghanistan!
    What is the unemployment rate of teen blacks?
    What is the unemployment rate in general?

    Good times? I guess that depends on where you stand. You could be the AP and get wire tapped by the DOJ. You could be a relative of the four who died in Benghazi and get no answers!

    June 5, 2013 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  21. don in albuquerque

    From the first State of the Union address when the Rep(?) stood up on National TV and shouted "YOU LIE" at the POTUS the stage was set. There has been nothing but name calling (especially on this site) and disrespect ever since. When that Rep pulled his little stunt the President should have just pickecd up his notes, yielded his podium to loudmouth and walked away. And what did the GOP do? Zip, nada, nothing. In fact tried to make him a hero. Wanna talk about classy? Any of you guys posting here wanna go after his kids? Come on. Show us how really civil, and cosmo you really are.

    June 5, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  22. trueletterson

    Ms. Obama don't have to put up with that mess she don't owe nobody nothing however her husband bought this on her like my dad use to say "if you play with a dog he will lick you in the mouth".

    June 5, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  23. Pete Driscoll

    When are these freaks ever going to finally shut up and go the eff away. Nobody gives a rats backside about them.

    June 5, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  24. dplandry

    She's a nasty, foul woman and I love it that she got so mad. She acts like some elitist and how dare that woman heckler her. LOVE IT!

    June 5, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  25. AZ Girl

    I think First Lady Mrs. Obama handled herself well. If it was First Lady Betty Ford, she would have told her to be quiet and sit down too!

    June 5, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
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