The ruling reverses a lower court decision allowing the suit on First Amendment grounds and sends the case back down for a new hearing.
The case began June 16, 2006, when Steven Howards took his two young sons to hear a piano recital at the Beaver Creek Mall in Beaver Creek, Colo.
Cheney was also visiting the mall, along with Secret Service Protective Intelligence Coordinator Gus Reichle and Secret Service Special Agents Dan Doyle, Adam Daniels and Daniel McLaughlin.
Howards approached the vice president and told him his "policies in Iraq are disgusting," court records said. Cheney responded, "Thank you."
"As he departed, Mr. Howards touched the vice president's right shoulder with his open hand," an appeals court opinion said.
Reichle eventually confronted Howards, asking him whether he had "touched" Cheney, and Howards conceded he lied by first responding he hadn't. "Agent Reichle decided to arrest Mr. Howards for assault on the vice president," the appeals court said. "Agents Doyle, Daniels and McLaughlin assisted in restraining Mr. Howards during the arrest."
Howards was turned over to the Eagle County Sheriff's Department and detained for hours, finally being charged with harassment in violation of state law. However, the state prosecutor dropped the charge and no federal charges ever were filed.
Howards filed suit against Reichle, Doyle, Daniels and McLaughlin.
An appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that Howards could pursue his First Amendment claim.
But writing for the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the agents were entitled to immunity because at the time of Howards' arrest, it was not clearly established that an arrest supported by probable cause could give rise to a First Amendment violation.
Justice Elena Kagan, who was solicitor general during part of the case in which the agents were defended by the Obama administration, did not participate in the Supreme Court case.