$80,000 For Your Free Speech

T-shirts with anti-Bush messages lead to a sizable payout

justice4all by justice

originally published August 20, 2007

From the ABC News blog The Blotter on August 17, 2007:

The Bush administration has agreed to pay $80,000 to a husband and wife who were ejected from a presidential rally because of their anti-Bush T-shirts.

… their shirts read “Love America, Hate Bush” and “Regime Change Starts at Home.”

… Jeffery and Nicole Rank refused directions from event staff and law enforcement to cover up their shirts at a July 4, 2004, West Virginia rally featuring President Bush. The pair were arrested, detained and charged with trespassing. The charges were later dismissed.

$80,000 seems a little low to settle a case that includes allegations of wrongful arrest and violations of constitutional rights, but lawyers must transmit all settlement offers to their clients, and clients get to decide whether to accept. Given how long this case appears to have been going on, I can understand how litigation fatigue could have been setting in, but still, it seems like a shame that the case is over, given what the potential evidence was going to be:

The settlement, in which the government admitted no wrongdoing, came after the disclosure of an allegedly “sensitive” Presidential Advance Manual, which laid out the White House’s meticulous efforts to protect the president and his public image from dissent.

I realize it is shocking to think that the Bush Administration would ever do anything to suppress dissent. But:

“As a last resort, security should remove the demonstrators from the event,” the manual instructs.

The manual also states:

“If the demonstrators appear to be a security threat, notify the Secret Service immediately. If demonstrators appear likely to only cause a political disruption it is the Advance person’s responsibility to take appropriate action.” (emphasis added)

Administration officials have the power to summon security to remove people from events, and based on what is written in the manual, there appears to be clear encouragement to use this power to remove demonstrators, even if they are not threatening.

It does seem that “political disruption” is a way of saying “message we don’t agree with,” because it appears that the White House is not opposed to the presence of demonstrators, so long as the message is approved and coordinated by the White House.

The Blotter reports:

Inside the event space, the manual advises, White House advance personnel should preposition “rally squads” that can swarm any protesters at the event and “use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform.”

The rally squads can be formed using “college/young republican organizations, local athletic teams, and fraternities/sororities,” the manual notes.

The squads can “lead supportive chants to drown out the protesters (USA!, USA!, USA!),” it suggests.

This policy appears to have led to two people in anti-Bush t-shirts getting arrested for refusing to cover their “politically disruptive” message.

I could have sworn that we have rights to the peaceful expression of protected speech, especially at political events, without the risk of arrest due to the content of the message.

But the Bush Administration denies any wrongdoing.

I suppose the key question is whether US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy would agree.

UPDATE: From the Washington Post on August 22, 2007:

“White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that he could not discuss the manual because it is an issue in two other lawsuits.”

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