Washington – Supporters can stand near President Bush and loyally wave their signs, but demonstrators opposing the president's policies are exiled to protest zones (search) in isolated areas, the American Civil Liberties Union (search) has alleged in recent court filings.
Protesters across the country — from South Carolina to Missouri to Florida — have brought several cases against the Bush administration, claiming its strict rules for dissenters violate their free speech rights.
“A favorite tactic of the Bush administration has been to herd protestors at presidential appearances into ‘designated protest zones,’ out of sight of [the president's] motorcade, and to arrest people who refuse to be moved. The policy, applied only to those with dissenting views, has been used to suppress dissent nationwide,” the ACLU wrote in a May 2003 report.
The ACLU of Eastern Missouri (search) sued the Secret Service (search) and the St. Louis police to stop a protest zone from being established for the president’s Aug. 26 visit to St. Louis. The organization said during three other visits by the president to the city, protesters were relegated to designated areas far away from the scene of any action.
The local police and Secret Service acknowledged that they had planned to use a free speech zone during the president's visit, but subsequently agreed in court not to do so. Based on that concession, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh decided not to issue a temporary restraining order.
“The government did admit that they had already set up a designated protest zone and it was going to be on the other side of the football-domed stadium, so between where the president was going to be and the protestors was a domed football stadium,” Matt LeMieux, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, told Foxnews.com.
During a Bush visit to Tampa, Fla., last November to support his brother Jeb Bush's re-election campaign for governor, police arrested three protestors for “trespassing after warning.”
A designated protest zone had been set up several hundred yards from the president. Police said the three men willfully violated the protest zone and toted their signs: “Why Do You Let These Crooks Fool You?” and “War Is Good for Business. Invest Your Sons.”
The Hillsborough County Court later dropped the charges, but the three are now suing for damages. Naming the Secret Service, the University of South Florida, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department and the Sun Dome as defendants, the suit accuses them of "excessive interference with protected speech through the establishment of ‘protest zones’ and the unlawful arrests and intimidation of plaintiffs in the exercise of presenting opposing political views at political events taking place in a public forum.”
“If your sign said, ‘We like Bush,’ you were not censored, and if your sign said, ‘We don’t like Bush,’ you were relegated to the free speech zone,” Luke Lirot, the plaintiffs' attorney, told Foxnews.com.
Lirot rejected the argument that the distinction was made for security reasons, saying that if someone wanted to do harm to the president, he or she would not carry an anti-Bush sign, but would do whatever it took to get as close as possible.
ACLU lawyer Chris Hansen, who has tracked speech zone cases, said the use of protest zones is not a phenomenon unique to the Bush administration.
This is "a problem that has existed with all administrations. It is true of all administrations," Hansen said.
But Lirot said he believes the Bush administration has been much more proactive than previous administrations in keeping protestors away from the president.
“I think it’s become far worse with this president. I know [protest zones] have been around for a while ... but these days, it is so clear that the message of dissent is being censored,” he said.
The Secret Service rejected the notion that it enforces the law selectively based on protestors’ views and denied involvement in establishing protest zones.
“The decisions that the Secret Service makes are based on security considerations. The establishment in oversight of public viewing areas is the responsibility of state and local authorities,” Secret Service spokesman John Gill told Foxnews.com.
Local police, however, have said they acted under orders from the Secret Service when setting up protest zones.
A spokesman for the University of South Florida Police Department said that the USFPD established the zone, but worked with the Secret Service on the details and received final approval from that agency.
“My strong impression is that the Secret Service is the ultimate decision maker. Most local police are deferential to whatever the Secret Service wants. Demonstrators are very frequently told [by local police] this is what the Secret Service wants us to do,” Hansen said.
The USFPD spokesman indicated that the zone was established for all individuals speaking out and not just for the president's critics.
LeMieux said regardless of whether or not the zones are meant to keep protesters farther away from the president than supporters, the Missouri court's decision was meant to make sure free speech is guaranteed to all.
“Whether you supported or opposed the president, you were finally treated the same,” he said.