Back in 1999, after discovering a website parodying his campaign for the Presidency, George W. Bush famously declared that “There ought to be limits to freedom“. Since his installation as President, we’ve come to see that he was being quite sincere when he said that. Bush does not like to be aware of anyone disagreeing with him or his policies.
One current example can be found in an article published by the Economist. Brett Bursey, a long time activist, had decided to join a crowd of people greeting the President at the Columbia, SC, airport. While the majority of the people gathered were there to show support for President Bush, Bursey brought a sign with him to express his opposition to Bush’s policy in regards to Iraq. The sign said simply “No War for Oil”. He was arrested by the South Carolina police for trespassing, but those charges were dropped. Soon after, however, he was charged under a federal statute that allows the Secret Service to restrict access to areas near the President. This rule, apparently, isn’t invoked very often, but the Justice department has pressed for the prosecution of this case, in part, at least, to test out their ability to use it more often. It seems they want to spare President Bush the trauma of having to see or hear any indication that not everyone likes him.
The prosecutors say that Mr Bursey was not in a special “free-speech zone” that was set up for protesters half a mile from the hangar. The pro-Bush people did not need to be there because they were not protesting. Mr Bursey told the cops, defiantly, that he was under the impression that the whole of America was a free-speech zone.
The prosecution is being brought specifically because Bursey was standing in the crowd to protest against President Bush. As noted above, none of the pro-Bush people were considered to be trespassing, and thus none were not arrested. The only difference between the pro-Bush people in the crowd and Bursey was the opinion he was expressing. In fact, one of the officials involved in his arrest told him “It’s the content of your sign.” He was also told that if he wanted to protest President Bush or his policies, he would have to go to the “Free Speech Zone” a half-mile down the road, out of Bush’s sight or hearing. In essence, he could only say something in opposition to the President if he said it where the President wouldn’t be subjected to it.
And, if all of that wasn’t bad enough, when Bursey requested a jury trial – so that his guilt or innocence could be determined by his peers – the judge presiding over the case refused his request, saying that petty offenses, such as this, are not covered by the right to a jury trial.
Eleven Congressmen have written to Attorney General Ashcroft about the situation, asking that the charges be dismissed.
In the letter to Ashcroft recently released, the members of Congress called the prosecution of Bursey for carrying his sign outside the designated free speech zone “a threat to the freedom of expression we should all be defending.”
“As we read the First Amendment to the Constitution, the United States is a ‘free speech zone.’ In the United States, free speech is the rule, not the exception, and citizens’ rights to express it do not depend on their doing it in a way the President finds politically amenable … We ask that you make it clear that we have no interest as a government in ‘zoning’ Constitutional freedoms, and that being politically annoying to the President of the United States is not a criminal offense. This prosecution smacks of the use of the Sedition Acts two hundred years ago to protect the President from political discomfort. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. We urge you to drop this prosecution based so clearly on the political views being expressed by the individual who is being prosecuted.”
From the reports I’ve read, there was nothing in Mr. Bursey’s appearance, demeanor or actions that would indicate he was any kind of a threat to the President. He was simply a man in a crowd with a sign saying “No War for Oil”. He was singled out for arrest and prosecution under federal statutes and charged with trespassing because his opinion was someplace it didn’t belong. I think that’s the scariest part of this story to me. What we’re talking about here isn’t a matter of protecting the President’s physical safety. If someone wanted to hurt or kill the president, they could easily blend in with a pro-Bush crowd if they needed to. It’s a matter of saying that the government is now going to discriminate against certain people if they don’t like the opinion being expressed – even if that opinion is entirely legal and protected by the First Amendment – and that expressing an “inappropriate” opinion in certain circumstances can now get you charged with a federal crime.
I could understand if ALL members of a crowd – both for and against the President and his policies – were required to gather in a certain area, away from where he was appearing. I wouldn’t necessarily like it, but it would be treating all opinions and opinion-holders the same way. The way it is right now, though, people who support the President are being given preferrential treatment, and those who oppose him are being pushed off as far to the side as possible. That is nothing short of a violation of the basic principle of free speech – one of the foundational values of this nation – and its a travesty of justice.Powered by Sidelines