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Protest Restrictions

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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.

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About thorswitch

  • It’s just bogus to claim this was from fear of a threat to the president. It’s not reasonable to presume that he’s a threat just because he’s critical of the president. That’s utter nonsense.

    Just being on the safe side, I could maybe accept if they had stopped him and patted him down for weapons, considering the heavy security issues. I wouldn’t be thrilled, but 30 seconds of being searched might be half reasonable.

    Arresting the guy was just utterly bogus, though, and claiming that he simply didn’t follow the rules does not BEGIN to justify it. The rules, in this case, are bogus and unconstitutional as all hell.

  • I’ve known Brett Bursey back to the days when I reviewed books for his now-defunct newspaper, The Point; there’s no more kindly, pleasant, or less threatening a gentleman. The intention of the arrest was obvious: allow Bush to arrive in a Republican stronghold where the dissenters have all been safely herded into a corner.

    Of course, there are two views on this. From the Columbia, S.C. State:

    The federal government will argue that Bursey refused to leave a restricted area created to protect the president.

    “The big puzzle to resolve by the judge is that I was told that I had to go to a free-speech zone and was arrested for trespassing,” Bursey said. “Five months later, the feds charged me with refusing to leave a cordoned-off area.”

    U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr.’s office charged Bursey under a statute that allows the U.S. Secret Service to restrict access to areas during the president’s travels.

    “That wasn’t what I got arrested for,” Bursey said. “That wasn’t what they were telling me at the time.”

    Luckily, he has a precedent on his side — a precedent he helped establish. As I think The Economist article pointed out, Brett was arrested in 1969 for “trespassing” when he protested then-President Nixon’s arrival at the same airport. The charge was tossed by the S.C. Supreme Court for the fairly obvious reason that you can’t trespass on public property.

    Brett thought he was going to get his day in court this past Tuesday, but the judge held it up to decide what prosecutors must prove to convict him. If they have to prove there was some sort of clear and intentional danger, then I’d say their goose is cooked — but, as Brett himself has said, it could go either way.

    If he wins, he plans to sue to recover trial costs.

    If he doesn’t, he’s prepared for that, too — he spent two years in prison in 1971 for spray painting “Hell no, we won’t go” on a wall at a draft board office in Columbia.

    “Fear of the unknown is like one of the greatest fears and so I don’t have that great fear,” he told The State newspaper. “Having been there and knowing that they can do whatever it is that they want to do, I have some trepidation that we have to convince the judge that the police aren’t telling the truth.”

  • There is always some sort of balance between “free speech” and various public safety issues. What has made America stand out in the world is that on paper, free speech wins, while many other countries have codified exceptions that end up making speech theoretically unfree.

    The problem is that what is on paper isn’t always what happens, and you get things like this which seems to be obviously wrong.

    Still, I suspect one reason this isn’t getting major coverage is because it happens all the time. I don’t think that makes me feel any better, though. Rather, it makes me feel worse.

  • Thomas: I already answered that in my original comment. They made a judgement call.

    It’s easy to criticize, but I think it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that no one doing so was there to witness every contributing factor.

  • ilona

    I have to say, after seeing some of the hate spewed toward President Bush since he came into office (often under the banner of belief of that guy’s sign), I don’t blame the Secret Service for being protective. We don’t have any idea just how bad it is out there for him, and he is hated by the left (in a scary way) a lot more than Reagan.

  • Pat Berry

    Glenn’s been ahead of the curve since 20 minutes ago.

  • Thomas

    If the Secret Service really is enforcing this law to remove possible threats to the President’s safety, then why don’t they ask everyone to stand in the secure, free-speech zone?

    As Kriselda said: “If someone wanted to hurt or kill the president, they could easily blend in with a pro-Bush crowd if they needed to.”

  • Sorry, Glenn. Missed those other stories when I searched your site (searched for the guy’s name). Obviously you’re ahead of the curve on this, not behind.

    Wish I could read that Leo column. $ only.

  • No, I don’t think so. It’s common practice for the Secret Service to set up specific areas for protesters when any President is at a public venue. This was the case when Bush was in Manhattan the other day, and a few hundred protesters showed up. They stayed in the area to which they were assigned, waved their signs, and screamed their heads off. Great, more power to them.

    However, the guy in this article did not. He broke the rules, and went outside the prescribed area. The Secret Service does everything it can to profile anything and everything at a given event and remove whatever possible threats to the President’s safety they can. One could argue this guy wasn’t a threat any more than the pro-Bush crowd. However, the decision of what is a threat and what isn’t is a decision left up to the Secret Service. That’s their job.

    Did they over-react in this case? Possibly. Did they suppress this guy’s freedom of speech? No. They told him to go to the specified area, and he obviously refused, so he was arrested. His arrest, as far as I can tell, had nothing to do with his political views, and everything to do with the fact that he didn’t play by the rules.

    You may not approve of anti-establishment protesters being required to be in specific areas, but that is not a suppression of free speech. It’s called crowd control.

    When the Secret Service starts arresting people by the hundreds for what they say, when they do play by the rules, then you’ll have a valid case in my eyes.

  • Actually, John Leo wrote a column about this back in May, and I posted on it on my blog at the time. So it hasn’t actually been ignored, though I agree that it deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

    It’s also not a new problem — they did the same thing under Clinton, and have been this way, though growing steadily worse, since Reagan was shot.

  • Kriselda,

    Look for a story soon. I emailed all four of the big-time pundity bloggers I mention here, and one of them just wrote me back to say he’s been working on a “piece” about this issue.

    I’m glad you posted this story. I actually had read that story, shook my head, and moved on (wrapped up in copyright-reform celebration). But seeing it again in your post made me realize how important this is.

  • Yep, thank God for that liberal media.

    Oh–and also that “libertarian” wing of the Republican party. I like how they’re so up in arms about this, too.

  • Thomas

    Yes, I’m sure Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Brit Hume, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, and Joe Scarborough would gladly hold their tongues if Clinton’s Justice Department pulled this stunt. Good thing we have a “Liberal Media” to set the record straight!

  • Wonder why this isn’t a top news story here in the U.S.?

  • One way or another, it’s Bush’s Justice Department doing the prosecuting, and his people surely know. It would take but a wave of the hand for Ashcroft to make this nonsense go away. I damn well expect him to do so.

  • I’m curious about whether this arrest came at Bush’s request, or if it was carried out to further someone else’s agenda. It seems to me that a politician doesn’t get to be POTUS by having such a thin skin that he would be mortally offended by one little dissenting sign with four words on it. Either way, this arrest is crap, and whoever is responsible for it needs a refresher course in Bill of Rights 101.

  • I was about ready to step off in your ass for cheap Bush bashing, but actually reading your argument I have to say you’re right. This arrest looks totally bogus. I don’t generally see much suppression of the right to protest like a lot of the commie types are carrying on about, but this one looks bad. The administration deserves to have this one broken off up in them.

    Good job, Kriselda.