The American Conservative, December 15, 2003
Headline: “Free-Speech Zone”
Byline: James Bovard
When Bush travels around the
When Bush came to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.” The local police, at the Secret Service’s behest, set up a “designated free-speech zone” on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush’s speech. The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, though folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president’s path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign. Neel later commented, “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”
At Neel’s trial, police detective John Ianachione
testified that the Secret Service told local police to confine “people that
were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views”
in a so-called free speech area. Paul Wolf, one of the top officials in the
Allegheny County Police Department, told Salon that the Secret Service
“come in and do a site survey, and say, ‘Here’s a place where the people can
be, and we’d like to have any protesters put in a place that is able to be
Similar suppressions have occurred during Bush visits to
Police have repressed protesters during several Bush visits to the
The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey,
who was arrested for holding a “No War for Oil” sign at a Bush visit to
Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the policeman if “it was the content of my sign, and he said, ‘Yes, sir, it’s the content of your sign that’s the problem.’” Bursey stated that he had already moved 200 yards from where Bush was supposed to speak. Bursey later complained, “The problem was, the restricted area kept moving. It was wherever I happened to be standing.”
Bursey was charged with trespassing. Five months
later, the charge was dropped because
Bursey’s trial took place on Nov. 12 and 13. His lawyers sought the Secret Service documents they believed would lay out the official policies on restricting critical speech at presidential visits. The Bush administration sought to block all access to the documents, but Marchant ruled that the lawyers could have limited access. Bursey sought to subpoena John Ashcroft and Karl Rove to testify. Bursey lawyer Lewis Pitts declared, “We intend to find out from Mr. Ashcroft why and how the decision to prosecute Mr. Bursey was reached.” The magistrate refused, however, to enforce the subpoenas. Secret Service agent Holly Abel testified at the trial that Bursey was told to move to the “free speech zone” but refused to co-operate. Magistrate Marchant is expected to issue his decision in December.
The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to National Public Radio, “These individuals may be so involved with trying to shout their support or non-support that inadvertently they may walk out into the motorcade route and be injured. And that is really the reason why we set these places up, so we can make sure that they have the right of free speech, but, two, we want to be sure that they are able to go home at the end of the evening and not be injured in any way.” Except for having their constitutional rights shredded.
Marr’s comments are a mockery of this country’s rich heritage of vigorous protests. Somehow, all of a sudden, after George W. Bush became president people became so stupid that federal agents had to cage them to prevent them from walking out in front of speeding vehicles.
The ACLU, along with several other organizations, is suing the Secret Service for what it charges is a pattern-and-practice of suppressing protesters at Bush events in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, and elsewhere. The ACLU’s Witold Walczak said of the protesters, “The individuals we are talking about didn’t pose a security threat; they posed a political threat.”
The Secret Service is duty-bound to protect the president. But it is ludicrous to presume that would-be terrorists are lunkheaded enough to carry anti-Bush signs when carrying pro-Bush signs would give them much closer access. And even a policy of removing all people carrying signs—as has happened in some demonstrations—is pointless, since potential attackers would simply avoid carrying signs. Presuming that terrorists are as unimaginative and predictable as the average federal bureaucrat is not a recipe for presidential longevity.
The Bush administration’s anti-protester bias proved embarrassing for two
American allies with long traditions of raucous free speech, resulting in some
of the most repressive restrictions in memory in free countries. When Bush
For Bush’s recent visit to London, the White House demanded that British
police ban all protest marches, close down the center of the city, and impose a
“virtual three day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of
the visit by anti-war protesters,” according to Britain’s Evening Standard.
But instead of a “free speech zone”—as such areas are labeled in the
Such unprecedented restrictions did not inhibit Bush from portraying himself
as a champion of freedom during his visit. In a speech at
Attempts to suppress protesters become more disturbing in light of the
Homeland Security Department’s recommendation that local police departments
view critics of the war on terrorism as potential terrorists. In a May 2003
terrorist advisory, the Homeland Security Department warned local law
enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who “expressed dislike of
attitudes and decisions of the
Protesters have claimed that police have assaulted them during
One of the most violent government responses to an antiwar protest occurred
when local police and the federally funded California Anti-Terrorism Task Force
fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters and innocent
bystanders at the
Such aggressive tactics become more ominous in the light of the Bush administration’s advocacy, in its Patriot II draft legislation, of nullifying all judicial consent decrees restricting state and local police from spying on those groups who may oppose government policies.
On Nov. 23 news broke that the FBI is now actively conducting surveillance of antiwar demonstrators—supposedly to “blunt potential violence by extremist elements,” according to a Reuters interview with a federal law enforcement official. Given the FBI’s expansive defintion of “potential violence” in the past, this is a net that could catch almost any group or individual who falls into official disfavor.
The FBI is also urging local police to report suspicious activity by protesters to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is run by the FBI. If local police take the hint and start pouring in the dirt, the JTTF could soon be building a “Total Information Awareness”-lite database on those antiwar groups and activists.
If the FBI publicly admits that it is surveilling antiwar groups and urging local police to send in information on protestors, how far might the feds go? It took over a decade after the first big antiwar protests in the 1960s before the American people learned the extent of FBI efforts to suppress and subvert public opposition to the Vietnam War. Is the FBI now considering a similar order to field offices as the one it sent in 1968, telling them to gather information illustrating the “scurrilous and depraved nature of many of the characters, activities habits, and living conditions representative of New Left adherents”—but this time focused on those who oppose Bush’s Brave New World?
Is the administration seeking to stifle domestic criticism? Absolutely. Is it carrying out a war on dissent? Probably not—yet. But the trend lines in federal attacks on freedom of speech should raise grave concerns to anyone worried about the First Amendment or about how a future liberal Democratic president such as Hillary Clinton might exploit the precedents that Bush is setting.
[Professor’s note: Brett Bursey, the man featured holding the “No War for Oil” sign was convicted and fined $500, a relatively lenient sentence given the fact that he could have been jailed for up to six months and fined $5000 for his offense. In explaining his decision, The U.S. Magistrate said he had taken into account the fact that Bursey’s protest was of a peaceful nature. Bursey’s conviction and fine were later upheld in July, 2005 by the Circuit Court of Appeals. On January 17, 2006, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected Bursey’s appeal and refused to hear the case.[
[Additional information related to the article
The following are excerpts from an official document written October, 2002 by President George Bush’s staff. A redacted (that is, censored) version of this manual was produced as a result of a lawsuit by the ACLU and revealed to the public in August, 2007.
Presidential Advance Manual:
Always be prepared for demonstrators, even if the local organization tells you that there will not be any. It is the responsibility of the Lead Advance to have in place an effective plan for dealing with demonstrators.
As mentioned, all Presidential events must be ticketed or accessed by a name list. This is the best method for preventing demonstrators. People who are obviously going to try to disrupt the event can be denied entrance at least to the VIP area between the stage and the main camera platform. That does not mean that supporters without tickets cannot be given tickets at the door and gain entrance to the event. It is also not the responsibility of the Secret Service to check the tickets of the people entering. They are concerned whether the person is a threat physically to The President and not a heckler. It is important to have your volunteers at a checkpoint before the Magnetometers in order to stop a demonstrator from getting into the event. Look for signs that they may be carrying, and if need be, have volunteers check for folded cloth signs that demonstrators may be bringing to the event.
Preparing for Demonstrators
There are several ways the advance person can prepare a site to minimize demonstrators. First, as always, work with the Secret Service and have them ask the local police department to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferable not on view of the event site or motorcade route.
The formation of “rally squads” is a common way to prepare for demonstrators by countering their message. This tactic involves utilizing small groups of volunteers to spread favorable messages using large hand held signs, placards, or perhaps a long sheet banner, and placing them in strategic areas around the site.
These squads should be instructed always to look for demonstrators. The rally squad's task is to use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform. If the demonstrators are yelling, rally squads can begin and lead supportive chants to drown out the protestors (USA!,USA!,USA!). As a last resort, security should remove the demonstrators form the event site. The rally squads can include, but are not limited to, college/young republican organizations, local athletic teams, and fraternities/sororities.]
For larger rallies, the squads should be broken up into groups of approximately 15-25 people. A squad should be placed immediately in front of the stage, immediately in front of the main camera platform, close to the cut platform, immediately behind the stage area (if people are being used as the backdrop), and at least one squad should be 'roaming' throughout the perimeter of the event to look for potential problems.
1. In what ways does James Bovard
allege that political dissent is being stifled in contemporary
2. Identify the civil liberties issues that are involved in free speech zones and in the steps taken by advance teams to suppress dissent. Should people have a right to protest at Presidential public addresses? Does the President have a right to stage public events in which he is the featured speaker? What is gained and lost by current policies?