Couple Arrested at Bush Rally Settles Lawsuit for $80,000

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The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Couple Arrested at Bush Rally Settles Lawsuit for $80,000

by
Andrew Clevenger

The federal government has agreed to pay $80,000 to a Texas couple arrested for wearing anti-President Bush T-shirts at a 2004 event with the president in Charleston.

0817 06Jeff and Nicole Rank went to Bush's Fourth of July speech at the state Capitol wearing homemade T-shirts with a red circle with a bar through it over the word "Bush."

On the back, hers read "Love America, Hate Bush" and his read "Regime Change Starts At Home."

When the couple refused to cover up their shirts, they were arrested and charged with trespassing. Those charges were later dropped by the city of Charleston, and city officials later apologized.

The American Civil Liberties Union subsequently filed a lawsuit on the Ranks' behalf in federal court in Charleston, alleging that the Ranks' First Amendment right to free political speech had been violated.

"This settlement is a real victory not only for our clients but for the First Amendment," state ACLU Director Andrew Schneider said in a news release Thursday.

Jeff and Nicole Rank said Thursday they never intended to be a big First Amendment case.

They came to West Virginia in 2004 because Nicole Rank was working as an environmental liaison officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When they learned that the president was scheduled to speak in Charleston, they decided to get tickets to the event.

"We'd noticed that whenever you see Bush on television, he's always surrounded by fervent supporters," Jeff Rank said via telephone from Houston, where he and his wife were scrambling to avoid Tropical Storm Erin as they picked up their 13-month-old daughter, Abigaile.

"We decided that we wanted to go, no doubt about it, but we didn't want to be added to the throngs of supporters," he said.

As they made their way through security, they wore shirts over the white undershirts with the slogans, he said. Their intention was not to attract a lot of attention when they revealed their handiwork, but to avoid antagonizing Bush supporters as they stood in line.

"It's kind of ironic that we wore the outer shirts to minimize the impact of our shirts, not to maximize," he said.

About 10 minutes after they displayed their undershirts, two Shelley Moore Capito staffers who were working the event approached them and told the couple they had to take off their T-shirts or leave the event, Jeff Rank said.

"We tried to explain to them that it was well within our right to stand there and wear these T-shirts, just as people around us had the right to wear pro-Bush and Cheney T-shirts," he said.

When it became clear that they were going to be ejected, they sat down and made the officers handcuff them, he said, because they wanted it clear that they were being involuntarily removed.

"To add to the thickness of the irony, as we're being led out, 'America the Beautiful' is playing over the loudspeaker," Jeff Rank recalled.

According to an edited version of an October 2002 Presidential Advance Manual posted on the ACLU's Web site, organizers actively tried to prevent protesters from going to presidential appearances.

"Proper ticket distribution is vital to creating a well-balanced crowd and deterring potential protesters from attending events," the manual states.

"Rally squads" were also used to drown out protesters by creating a shield between demonstrators and the press, according to the manual.

When Nicole Rank returned to work after the holiday weekend, FEMA officials sent her home to Texas.

"I was told that my actions had compromised FEMA's mission in West Virginia and I was being relieved from duty," she said.

Shortly thereafter, the couple contacted the state branch of the ACLU.

"[The First Amendment] is a fundamental tenet of our nation, and it needs to be fought for," Jeff Rank said. "Surprisingly, it still needs to be fought for."

Jeff Rank, 32, now a third-year law student at the University of Houston, hopes to focus on civil rights law once he graduates. Nicole Rank, 33, is pursuing dual degrees in law and social work.

"People take for granted their ability to express their own opinions until something like this happens to them," Nicole Rank said.

The couple lived in Charleston for about a year to deal with the legal proceedings surrounding the lawsuit, and they still harbor a fondness for West Virginia and its citizens.

When asked if are glad they decided stand up for their beliefs, both answered "absolutely" without hesitation.

"We have thoroughly not enjoyed our 15 minutes [of fame]. It's cost us personally and professionally," Jeff Rank said. "The thing that we're fighting for, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, is just too important to this country to lay down on something like this."

© Copyright 2007 The Charleston Gazette

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