Roadblocks Devised to Push Back Against Health Care Town Hall Protesters

Americans who want to express their opinions on health care reform at town halls across the country are encountering a host of roadblocks, ranging from fake schedules to a demand that they show their driver's licenses or photo identification.

Supporters of President Obama's plan say they are pushing back against opposition that is disruptive and designed to shut down debate. But opponents say the supporters' tactics are underhanded and designed to undermine democracy in action.

In Texas, Rep. Gene Green's office is requiring town hall attendees to present a photo ID that proves they live in his district.

On his Web site, Green says "due to a coordinated effort to disrupt our town hall meetings, we will be restricting further attendance to residents ... and verifying residency by requiring photo identification."

Green's spokeswoman, Brenda Arredondo, told that the Democratic congressman enacted the policy after she and other staffers overheard attendees saying they were going to keep disrupting the town halls. After the policy went into effect at the fourth town hall Green hosted this month, she said eight out of 10 attendees were found not to be constituents.

They were allowed to stay, she said, leading to the same outbursts seen at the other three. But they won't be allowed to attend the fifth one, she said.

"Those people are welcome to call their members of Congress and voice their opinions," she said, adding that Green is trying to listen to his constituents.

She said the policy is not intended to block opponents of health care reform. "If you want to come yell and scream and are constituents, we obviously more than welcome your voice," she said. "It's not to silence anyone's voice from the district."

In Illinois, two Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Obama this week complaining that Democratic organizers scheduled meetings between them and their constituents without ever notifying them, misleading their constituents into going to town halls on the wrong day.

Illinois Reps. Mark Kirk and Judy Biggert wrote that their constituents had apparently signed up for meetings to discuss health care reform with them after receiving an Aug. 9 e-mail from urging them to do so.

"However, the names of our constituents and the times they wished to visit were never communicated to us," the letter said.

As a result, the lawmakers claimed more than 20 constituents came to their district offices on Monday.

"When they learned neither the White House, the Democratic National Committee nor Organizing for America had passed their request to our offices, they were understandably confused and upset with the e-mail they had received," they wrote.

They urged the organizers not to keep them in the dark in the future.

In response, Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse issued a statement saying that the OFA members were not told to go to offices unannounced.

"They are mischaracterizing this -- which is not surprising if you look at the falsehoods Republicans are spreading on this issue," he wrote. "OFA sent an e-mail to all its supporters asking them to sign up for drop bys with every House and Senate office -- Democrat and Republican -- to drop off a flyer in support of heath insurance reform."

Woodhouse said the e-mail advised supporters that "they should call ahead to make sure the office was open and that if they wanted to do more than drop by the office they should schedule a meeting on their own."

Health Care for America Now, a coalition group organizing support for Obama's proposal, e-mailed a four-page memo to activists across the country on how to provide "cover" to lawmakers at the town halls. The group, whose members include ACORN, the Service Employees International Union and the National Council of La Raza, urged activists to contact lawmakers before the town halls to plan ways to preempt opposition.

"Ask the member's staff what would be most helpful and talk through a strategy for making sure the right messages don't get drowned out by chaotic protesters," field director Margarida Jorge wrote.

"Address the [member of Congress] directly with a positive message: Remember, these members need cover and they are getting beaten up by right wing zealots in these meetings."

Jacki Schechner, a spokeswoman for HCAN, told that the group sent the memo after many of its 120 field organizers in 44 states encountered screaming and shouting at the town halls.

"Not that the opposition caught anyone off guard," she said. "The level of screaming and shouting and lack of intelligent discourse caught people off guard."

Schechner noted that the memo does not emphasize any one tactic, but rather coordination with lawmakers to facilitate the town hall. She rejected the notion that the memo is designed to undermine democracy.

"We would love to have more conversation," she said. "What undermines democracy is the screaming and yelling and not allowing people to talk.

"There's a very important detail being lost here. There are details of health care not being explained because no one can get a word in edgewise," she said, adding that the town halls are intended for lawmakers to explain those details. "That legitimate conversation is not happening because there's such an angry din of noise."

Schechner said the memo has already helping lawmakers like Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who was rushed by protesters at earlier town halls where one held a sign showing Doggett with devil's horns. But now the town halls are more orderly, she said.