An incident during a presidential visit to Neville Island last year has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to ask a federal court to prevent the U.S. Secret Service from keeping anti-Bush protesters far away from the president while allowing supporters close up.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on behalf of four advocacy organizations that claim the Secret Service forced them into protest zones or other areas where they could not be seen by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or be noticed by the media covering their visits.
The seeds of the lawsuit were planted on Labor Day 2002 when William Neel, 65, of Butler, was charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move to a designated protest area during a visit by President Bush to Neville Island.
District Justice Shirley Trkula of Coraopolis eventually dismissed the charge, saying that Neel had a right to free speech.
“But it was that incident that led us to begin asking around the country to determine if this was happening anywhere else,” said Barb Feige, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU.
“The pattern we found was at presidential and vice presidential appearances, protesters were restricted to areas where they were out of sight, out of earshot and often out of mind,” said Witold J. “Vic” Walczak, legal director for the Greater Pittsburgh chapter.
“Protecting our nation’s leaders from harm is important. Protecting our nation’s leaders from dissent is unconstitutional.”
Secret Service spokesman John Gill said, “The Secret Service does not comment on pending litigation. However, we have a long-standing policy of recognizing the constitutionally protected right of the public to demonstrate and voice their views to their elected officials.”
The ACLU complaint lists several incidents in a dozen states where protesters were forced to assemble blocks away from where the president or vice president was speaking, while supporters of the administration could hold their signs up in front.
Neel is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, but his case is cited as an example, Feige said. He could be asked to testify, she said.
The plaintiffs are the National Organization for Women; United for Peace and Justice, an anti-war group; ACORN, an advocacy organization for low and moderate-income families; and USAction, a group that supports universal health care and opposes the Iraq war and Bush’s tax cuts.
Feige said the lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia because the ACLU is seeking enforcement of a 1988 federal decree requiring Philadelphia police to treat protesters fairly. The lawsuit was amended to include the U.S. Secret Service as a defendant.
“As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free-speech zone,” said Neel, 66, a retired steelworker. “Anyone who calls himself a patriot ought to be as concerned about this as I am.”
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