- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — When school was canceled to accommodate a 2004 campaign visit by President Bush, the two 55-year-old teachers reckoned the time was ripe to voice their 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 Republican 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 the women 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 Miss 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.

Although 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 they say 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,” Mr. 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. Miss Nelson and Miss 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 Sept. 3, 2004.

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

Miss McCabe and Miss 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, Miss 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 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 that the Republican Party obtained exclusive rights to use the park and that donation takers were ignored because they were an authorized part of the event. The lawyers also say the two women 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 September 11 attacks and a small price for ensuring the safety of a world leader in an era of heightened suspicion and uncertainty.

But Leslie Weise, who was ejected last year from Mr. Bush’s town hall meeting in Denver, says law-enforcement agencies are violating citizens’ rights.

Mrs. Weise is a 40-year-old environmental lawyer who worked as a volunteer for the Kerry campaign in 2004, as did her friends Alex Young and Karen Bauer. All three were removed from a March 2005 meeting about Social Security reform. Mrs. Weise said she learned from Secret Service in Denver that a bumper sticker on her car — “No More Blood for Oil” — caught the attention of security.

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.

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