Friday, January 09, 2004

Catchin' Up ... Free Speech in Bush's World

From: Quarantining dissent / How the Secret Service protects Bush from free speech

When President Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up "free speech zones" or "protest zones," where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.

When Bush went to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, "The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us."

The local police, at the Secret Service's behest, set up a "designated free-speech zone" on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush's speech.

The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, but folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president's path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign.

Neel later commented, "As far as I'm concerned, the whole country is a free-speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind."
That's what we kinda thought too Mr. Neel, but apparently we're all mistaken.

Pennsylvania District Judge Shirley Rowe Trkula threw out the disorderly conduct charge against Neel, declaring, "I believe this is America. Whatever happened to 'I don't agree with you, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it'?"
I guess Judge Shirley is kind of keen on free speech as well. On the whole, the Administration isn't doing so well with judges as of late, perhaps this is a sign of better times to come.

Police have repressed protesters during several Bush visits to the St. Louis area as well. When Bush visited on Jan. 22, 150 people carrying signs were shunted far away from the main action and effectively quarantined.

Denise Lieberman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri commented, "No one could see them from the street. In addition, the media were not allowed to talk to them. The police would not allow any media inside the protest area and wouldn't allow any of the protesters out of the protest zone to talk to the media."

When Bush stopped by a Boeing plant to talk to workers, Christine Mains and her 5-year-old daughter disobeyed orders to move to a small protest area far from the action. Police arrested Mains and took her and her crying daughter away in separate squad cars.
Gotta love that compassionate conservatism don't ya'? Wouldn't you think the media would be disturbed by this? Guess not.

The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey, who was arrested for holding a "No War for Oil" sign at a Bush visit to Columbia, S.C. Local police, acting under Secret Service orders, established a "free-speech zone" half a mile from where Bush would speak. Bursey was standing amid hundreds of people carrying signs praising the president. Police told Bursey to remove himself to the "free-speech zone."

Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the police officer if "it was the content of my sign, and he said, 'Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign that's the problem.' " Bursey stated that he had already moved 200 yards from where Bush was supposed to speak. Bursey later complained, "The problem was, the restricted area kept moving. It was wherever I happened to be standing."

Bursey was charged with trespassing. Five months later, the charge was dropped because South Carolina law prohibits arresting people for trespassing on public property. But the Justice Department -- in the person of U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr. -- quickly jumped in, charging Bursey with violating a rarely enforced federal law regarding "entering a restricted area around the president of the United States."
The bastard! Oops, I guess, technically, that would be Strom's daughter. Freedom, liberty and justice for all, eh Strom?

The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to National Public Radio?, "These individuals may be so involved with trying to shout their support or nonsupport that inadvertently they may walk out into the motorcade route and be injured. And that is really the reason why we set these places up, so we can make sure that they have the right of free speech, but, two, we want to be sure that they are able to go home at the end of the evening and not be injured in any way." Except for having their constitutional rights shredded.

The ACLU, along with several other organizations, is suing the Secret Service for what it charges is a pattern and practice of suppressing protesters at Bush events in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas and elsewhere. The ACLU's Witold Walczak said of the protesters, "The individuals we are talking about didn't pose a security threat; they posed a political threat."
That's it; they're just looking out for our well-being. You know, given what this Administration has been able to get away with, I'm not sure it's possible for anyone to pose a political threat, either. Read the whole article here.


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