In the waning days of this administration’s tenure, President Bush’s lack of interest in opinions contrary to his own is as striking as ever. Most recently in New Mexico, a group of peaceful demonstrators was removed from the president’s sight, continuing the administration’s long-held tradition that dissenters should be neither seen nor heard. Sound undemocratic? Indeed.
Last August, President Bush attended an exclusive, high-priced fundraiser for New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. Local activists opposed to the president’s policies were, of course, not invited. To let the president know that not everyone agreed with him, they planned to stand along his motorcade route holding up signs expressing their views, especially their opposition to the war in Iraq.
The peaceful demonstrators’ attempt at free speech was quickly squashed when police officers forced them to stay at least 150 yards away from the motorcade route, walling them off by placing numerous police cars and officers on horseback between the protesters and the president. Meanwhile, a group of Bush supporters was allowed to stand right along the motorcade route, where their “God Bless George Bush! We pray for you!” sign was in plain view of both Bush and the journalists accompanying him.
This isn’t the first time law enforcement officers have tried to squelch dissenters in President Bush’s presence. In 2004, Jeffrey and Nicole Rank were arrested for peacefully attending one of the president’s speeches while wearing t-shirts bearing the international “no” symbol superimposed over the word “Bush.” The Ranks sued and ultimately received an $80,000 settlement from the White House—a win for free speech after a fight that should never have been necessary in a free society.
And in 2005, Leslie Weise and Alex Young were ejected from another of the president’s speeches because of a bumper sticker on their car that read “No More Blood for Oil.” Their lawsuit is still pending.
Now, the ACLU has filed a complaint in federal court on behalf of six of the peaceful protesters in New Mexico who were banned from the view of the president. It is our hope that the lawsuit will prove once and for all that incidents such as these are unconstitutional.
These incidents of censorship appear to be dictated by White House policy. The official Presidential Advance Manual recommends that someone working on the ground where the president is to make an appearance “ask the local police department to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade route.” It advocates the formation of “rally squads” of sign-wielding supporters that can “use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform.” It also suggests that the rally squads “lead supportive chants to drown out the protesters (USA! USA! USA!).”
Lest it be thought that only Republican administrations engage in this type of behavior, it is worth pointing out that the Clinton administration’s Advance Manual also suggested that supporters could “be encouraged to wave supporting placards in front of opposing ones.” In fact, the ACLU supported a lawsuit against a government policy that prohibited people from demonstrating along the route of Clinton’s presidential inauguration parade.
It’s easy to see why presidents would want to be pictured surrounded by adoring supporters. After all, the true audience for a presidential appearance is usually not those who attend in person, but the potential millions who will catch a glimpse on the evening news. Few may hear the words the president speaks, but many will see the images filmed that day.
But the desire to look good does not justify treating members of the public like extras in a campaign commercial rather than citizens with a protected constitutional right to engage in speech of their own. Shielding the president from all criticism is an unsound and undemocratic policy that violates the Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits the government from “abridging the freedom of speech.” This guarantee is grounded in the idea that, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained almost 90 years ago, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
The right to free speech is meaningless when the government is permitted to do an end run around the First Amendment by relegating those who want to exercise it to remote locations where no one will hear them. Communication requires both a speaker and a listener. Just as it is censorship to prohibit speech entirely, it is censorship to place individuals where they can speak all they want with no chance of being heard.
You should consider joining the ACLU, or at least donating to help them with the good works they are doing to protect all of our civil liberties.
About the author
Catherine Crump works at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to safeguard the right to engage in political dissent. Catherine’s project seeks to protect the First Amendment rights of government whistle blowers and political protesters. She counsels and supports government employees who wish to come forward with information about shortcomings in the government’s national security strategy. She also works with political protesters who are critical of government and have been forced to protest in relatively remote locations because of their viewpoint.