Police say the two protesters, Kurt Shotko and Victor Bobrzyk, were arrested only after they refused to stop blocking people's views of the parade last year in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The American Civil Liberties Union suspects a more sinister motive: an attempt to stifle unpopular speech.
Charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, the pair are scheduled for trial in Luzerne County Court this month.
"We think it was about the content of the speech. They weren't blocking anybody's view," said ACLU lawyer Paula Knudson, who is defending Shotko and Bobrzyk in court. "They were being very respectful of the people in the parade."
Police Chief Gerry Dessoye said his officers acted professionally and that the arrests were justified.
"The issue wasn't the size or necessarily the content of the signs; the issue was they were blocking the view," said Dessoye. He contended the case has nothing to do with free speech, and that the protesters "want to turn it into something more than it is."
Amateur video of the March 13 parade, which included Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, shows Shotko and Bobrzyk standing in the crowd along the sidewalk, holding aloft large signs attached to wooden poles.
Shotko's banner was headlined, "The Face of Fascism," and had a Hitler-like figure mouthing the words, "Let's steal from the poor, and use the money to kill for God." Below that read: "Stop the Bush crime family."
Bobrzyk's banner was headlined, "Global business creates slavery," and had the Hitler figure saying: "Work makes you free." Below that read: "Adolf Bush."
It is unclear from the video whether the signs blocked anybody's view. But according to a police affidavit, City Administrator J.J. Murphy, a top aide to Mayor Tom Leighton, approached Shotko and Bobrzyk and asked them to either lower the signs or move to the rear of the crowd.
"The signs had writing on them against the Bush administration and the federal government," the affidavit noted.
Police say the protesters refused Murphy's request, prompting him to ask police for their removal from the area.
The video depicts a brief scuffle between Bobrzyk and a police officer. As Bobrzyk and Shotko were placed in handcuffs, the video shows a friend of Shotko's trying to walk away with one of the signs, then an officer ripping it from her hands and throwing it to the ground.
Shotko, 39, of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who has been staging public protests since the early 1990s and has previous convictions for disorderly conduct, and Bobrzyk, 68, a naturalized American citizen from Poland, face up to several years in prison if convicted.
"You're not going to stop me from trying to talk to people about where our country is at," said Shotko, a one-time congressional candidate. "I'm not afraid of doing time for my free speech."