President George W. Bush has never been an advocate of the First Amendment. Even when he was governor of Texas, he prohibited demonstrations on the walkways in front of the governor's mansion, an area which had traditionally been used for peaceful protests.
As president, Bush has widened his restrictions on demonstrations against his policies. Anti-Bush protesters are now relegated to what are euphemistically called Free Speech Zones. These areas are cordoned off as far as a mile away from the president and the main thoroughfares, so that Bush cannot see the demonstrators, or their signs of protest, or hear their chants.
The free speech enclosures are only for those who disagree with the administration's current policies. Those citizens who carry pro-Bush signs are allowed to line the street where the president's motorcade passes.
Members of the Secret Service or local law enforcement officers under orders of the Secret Service demand that protesters move into a free speech area. Peter Buckley, of Oregon, a former Democratic candidate for Congress, attended a presidential appearance. After being herded into a fenced-in free speech area, he wrote in an opinion piece for The Oregonian: "We were not allowed anywhere near any kind of position where the president, or the media which follows him, would see or hear us. This is not America. This in not the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is some other country. I'm a patriotic American. I want the country I was raised to believe in, a country strong enough for political discourse and debate, with leaders courageous and decent enough to have the willingness to listen to all citizens, not just those who parrot their own views. ... The effort being made to hide political opposition in this country is more than cowardly, it's un-American."
Brett Bursey, of South Carolina, attended a speech given by the president at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. He was standing among thousands of other citizens. Bursey held up a sign stating: "No more war for oil." Bursey did not pose a threat to the president, nor was he located in an area restricted to official personnel. Bursey wasn't blocking a corridor the Secret Service needed to keep clear for security reasons. He was standing among citizens who were enthusiastically greeting Bush. Bursey, however, was the only one holding an anti-Bush sign.
He was ordered to put down his sign or move to a designated protest site more than half a mile away, outside the sight and hearing of the president. Bursey refused. He was then arrested and charged with trespassing by the South Carolina police.
However, those charges were dropped. Understandably, courts across the nation have upheld the right to protest on public property.
Instead, Bursey was indicted by the federal government for violation of a federal law that allows the Secret Service to restrict access to areas visited by the president. Bursey faces up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. Members of the House of Representatives, including those on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft urging him to drop the federal criminal prosecution of Bursey.
The letter, signed by 11 members of the House, including Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, states, in part: "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 that 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."
The American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of four national advocacy groups, has filed a lawsuit in federal court charging the Secret Service with a "pattern and practice" of discrimination against protesters that violates their free speech rights. The suit seeks to ban the Secret Service and local police from confining protesters to areas away from the view of public officials and the press. The federal government has gone much further, however. The Fresno Bee, a California newspaper, reported Oct. 3 that a member of the Fresno Sheriff's Department had infiltrated a peace group, Peace Fresno, to collect information on members of the group. Peace Fresno has no history of violent protests that would endanger national security.
And on July 13, the Department of Justice charged the environmental organization Greenpeace with conspiracy to board a cargo vessel without the ship's permission and without other lawful authority before the vessel arrived at its destination. The second count under this prosecution charges Greenpeace with boarding the vessel before arrival. The maximum penalty for each count is a $10,000 fine, as well as a probation period that could reach 11 years. The cargo vessel was approximately three miles from the port of Miami.
Greenpeace activists have peacefully boarded ships throughout the world to protest illegal cargo or illegal fishing methods. They board, protest, then disembark to their own inflatable speedboats.
The protest that sparked this federal prosecution occurred back in April 2002. Two activists from Greenpeace climbed aboard a cargo ship to unfurl a banner protesting the ship's illegal cargo of mahogany wood from the Amazon. The banner simply read: "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging." The activists were detained before they could unfurl the banner. It was an effort to prompt United States authorities to seize the ship's cargo.
However, the mahogany was never seized and the ship's captain was not detained for carrying illegal cargo. Instead, Greenpeace became the target of federal prosecutors.
The pattern is clear: The Bush administration wants to suppress civil disobedience and peaceful protest. The federal government has never criminally prosecuted an entire organization for the free speech activities of its supporters. It's an attack on the very core of the First Amendment.
One of the founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, is a forceful protest against the actions of King George III and the British government. Protest actions such as the Boston Tea Party, the civil rights movement and antiwar demonstrations have shown that active citizens have the ability to promote and secure democratic ideals.
The writer is editorial page editor of the (WY) Casper Star-Tribune.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune