Arrested Bush Dissenters Turn to the Courts

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When school was canceled to accommodate a campaign visit by President Bush, the two 55-year-old teachers reckoned the time was ripe to voice their simmering discontent with the administration's policies.

Christine Nelson showed up at the Cedar Rapids rally with a Kerry-Edwards button pinned on her T-shirt; Alice McCabe clutched a small, paper sign stating "No More War." What could be more American, they thought, than mixing a little dissent with the bunting and buzz of a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by the president?

Their reward: a pair of handcuffs and a strip search at the county jail.

Authorities say they were arrested because they refused to obey reasonable security restrictions, but the women disagree: "Because I had a dissenting opinion, they did what they needed to do to get me out of the way," said Nelson, who teaches history and government at one of this city's middle schools.

"I tell my students all the time about how people came to this country for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, that those rights and others are sacred. And all along I've been thinking to myself, 'not at least during this administration.'"

Their experience is hardly unique.

In the months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war and administration policies.

Similar things have happened at official, taxpayer-funded, presidential visits, before and after the election. Some targeted by security have been escorted from events, while others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped by local prosecutors.

Now, in federal courthouses from Charleston, W.Va., to Denver, federal officials and state and local authorities are being forced to defend themselves against lawsuits challenging the arrests and security policies.

While the circumstances differ, the cases share the same fundamental themes. Generally, they accuse federal officials of developing security measures to identify, segregate, deny entry or expel dissenters.

Jeff Rank and his wife, Nicole, filed a lawsuit after being handcuffed and booted from a July 4, 2004, appearance by the president at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston. The Ranks, who now live in Corpus Christi, Texas, had free tickets to see the president speak, but contend they were arrested and charged with trespassing for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.

"It's nothing more than an attempt by the president and his staff to suppress free speech," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia, which is providing legal services for the Ranks.

"What happened to the Ranks, and so many others across the country, was clearly an incident of viewpoint discrimination. And the lawsuit is an attempt to make the administration accountable for what we believe were illegal actions," Schneider said.

In Cedar Rapids, McCabe and Nelson are suing three unnamed Secret Service agents, the Iowa State Patrol and two county sheriff deputies who took part in their arrest. Nelson and McCabe, who now lives in Memphis, Tenn., accuse law enforcement of violating their right to free speech, assembly and equal protection.

The two women say they were political novices, inexperienced at protest and unprepared for what happened on Sept. 3, 2004.

Soon after arriving at Noelridge Park, a sprawling urban playground dotted with softball diamonds and a public pool, McCabe and Nelson were approached by Secret Service agents in polo shirts and Bermuda shorts. They were told that the Republicans had rented the park and they would have to move because the sidewalk was now considered private property.

McCabe and Nelson say they complied, but moments later were again told to move, this time across the street. After being told to move a third time, Nelson asked why she was being singled out while so many others nearby, including those holding buckets for campaign donations, were ignored. In response, she says, they were arrested.

They were charged with criminal trespass, but the charges were later dropped.

A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment on pending litigation or answer questions on security policy for presidential events. White House spokesman Alex Conant also declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

But Justice Department lawyers, in documents filed recently in federal court in Cedar Rapids, outline security at the rally and defend the Secret Service agents' actions.

They contend the GOP obtained exclusive rights to use the park and that donation takers were ignored because they were an authorized part of the event. They also say McCabe and Nelson were disobedient, repeatedly refusing agents' orders to move.

"At no time did any political message expressed by the two women play any role in how (the agents) treated them," they wrote. "All individuals ... subject to security restrictions either complied with the security restrictions or were arrested for refusing to comply."

Defenders say stricter policies are a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a small price for ensuring the safety of a world leader in an era of heightened suspicion and uncertainty.

But Leslie Weise says law enforcers are violating citizens' rights to voice objections within earshot of the president.

Last year, in Denver, Weise and two friends were evicted from a Bush town hall meeting on Social Security reform.

Weise, a 40-year-old environmental lawyer who is now a stay-at-home mother, opposes the war in Iraq and the administration's energy policies. Like friends Alex Young and Karen Bauer, Weise did some volunteer work for the Kerry campaign.

In the days before Bush's March 2005 town hall meeting, the trio toyed briefly with the notion of actively protesting the visit. But they said they decided against it because they had heard of arrests at Bush appearances in North Dakota and Arizona.

After parking Weise's car, the three, dressed in professional attire and holding tickets obtained from their local congressman, arrived at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Young cleared security, but Weise and Bauer were briefly detained and told by staff they had been "identified" and would be arrested if they tried "any funny stuff," according to court records.

After finding their seats, they were approached again by staff and removed before Bush began speaking. Days later, Weise learned from Secret Service in Denver that a bumper sticker on her green Saab hatchback — "No More Blood for Oil" — caught the attention of security.

"I had every reason to attend that event, just as anyone else in the room had that day," said Weise. "If we raised security to a higher level just because we had an opinion different from the administration, I think that goes far beyond what is appropriate for this country."

Lawsuits by protesters are not always embraced by the courts. In Pennsylvania, a federal judge dismissed a suit challenging the arrests of six men who stripped down to thongs and formed a pyramid to protest the Abu Ghraib scandal when Bush paid a visit to Lancaster.

The judge ruled the authorities acted with probable cause and are entitled to qualified immunity, shielding them from liability. The ruling is on appeal.

Such efforts to segregate or diminish dissent are hardly new to American politics.

The ACLU has sued several presidents over attempts to silence opposition, as in 1997, when President Clinton tried to prevent protesters from lining his inaugural parade route. And during the tumultuous 1960s, it was not uncommon for hecklers and protesters to be whisked away or managed at a distance from rallies and events.

"In my mind, it all started with Nixon. He was the first presidential candidate to really make an effort to control their image and disrupt public interruption at events," said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

But political experts say the 2004 Bush campaign rewrote the playbook for organizing campaign rallies.

At the Republican National Convention in New York City and at other campaign stops, security segregated protesters in designated "free speech zones" set up at a significant distance from each rally. To get into events headlined by Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, supporters were required to obtain tickets through GOP channels or sign loyalty oaths.

Political experts agree Bush 2004 went to greater lengths than Kerry officials — or any past campaign — to choreograph a seamless, partisan rally free of the embarrassing moments that attract media attention.

Gone are the days of candidates facing down hecklers or reacting to distractions like, the man who donned a chicken costume and pestered George H.W. Bush in 1991 after he balked at Bill Clinton's invitations to debate.

Anthony Corrado, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said ticket-only events are an effective tool for rewarding legions of volunteers who work the phone banks, raise money and build support.

"In my view, the Republicans did a much better job of linking field volunteers with their schedule and events," Corrado said. "I had never seen it done to the extent it was on 2004 on the Republican side. And my guess is we'll probably see a lot more of it all."