Making Dissent Invisible

the following appeared in the Fall 2003 edition of Liberties, the newsletter of the ACLU/EM 


Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Making Dissent Invisible

ACLU lawsuit challenges designated protest zones


By Denise Lieberman

ACLU/EM Legal Director


In cities across the country, free speech is being put out of sight by an administration that would just as soon not see dissent. In a first of its kind lawsuit, the ACLU has sued the United States Secret Service for discriminating against protesters in violation of their free speech rights by forcing them into ìdesignated protest zonesî during events attended by President Bush and other senior federal officials.


ìThere is nothing more American than raising your voice in protest, and there is nothing more un-American than a government that attempts to hit the mute button when it doesnít like what it hears,î said Vic Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh and a member of the national ACLU legal team that filed the lawsuit in a Pennsylvania federal court on September 23. The suit alleges that the Secret Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security that charged with protecting the president and other cabinet officials, has a policy instituted during the current administration of instructing police to send protesters to cordoned areas away from the President.


Several St. Louis area cases are included in the suit, which also sites incidents of protesters being arrested for refusing to go to designated protest zones in California, Arizona, New Jersey, New Mexico, Connecticut, South Carolina and others places.


The ACLU of Eastern Missouri represents four protesters arrested for refusing to move to designated protest zones at appearances by President Bush in St. Charles, St. Louis City and St. Louis County.


On August 26, the ACLU/EM sought an emergency injunction in a St. Louis federal court to bar the Secret Service and local police from again forcing protesters into a designated protest zone during that dayís planned visit by President Bush. Officials had planned for a protest area several blocks away from and on the other side of the St. Louis Convention Center, where the President was scheduled to visit. The designated zone was completely out of sight of the event, blocked by the Trans World Dome, where protesters could not be seen by President Bush or other event attendees.


During the court hearing, attorneys for the Secret Service said that protestersí rights werenít being denied by being outside the sight of their intended audience, saying there was no difference between President looking over and seeing protesters, and seeing coverage of the protest on the news that night. 


ìI believe that freedom of speech protects my right to speak in public, in full view of those people who oppose my views or who disagree with me. The official protest area would have denied me that right. It was so far from any activity that nobody would ever have known we were there,î said ACLU/EM client Angela Gordon, who was arrested with client Bill Ramsey outside the St. Charles Family Arena last November after they refused to go to a designated protest zone far away from the event. Their case is among several examples of previous exclusions in the St. Louis area.


At the August 26 hearing, the judge decided not to issue an emergency restraining order when attorneys for the Secret Service and local police agreed for the first time not to force protesters into the designated protest zone that evening. "Other than the secured area, anyone can be outside and will not be required to go to a particular place," Judge Stephen Limbaugh said in his ruling from the bench. ACLU/EM General Counsel Steve Ryals litigated the case for the ACLU and is also serving as cooperating attorney for the other protesters who were previously arrested for refusing to go to designated protest zones.


Unfortunately, the ACLUís emergency action in August only covered Bushís visit that day and did not provide for broader relief the next time he comes to town. And, if the experiences of our clients in St. Louis and numerous other cities around the country is any indication, protesters will continue to be segregated into protest zones as part of the Secret Serviceís security plan. ACLU offices nationwide have seen a significant spike in such incidents under the Bush Administration, prompting it to charge officials with a ìpattern and practiceî of discrimination against those who disagree with government policies.


Pennsylvania ACLU director Stephen Presser says that the practice has gotten worse. The national suit alleges that the Secret Service, with the help of local police, are violating protestersí rights in two ways: either they are being moved further away from the event than other demonstrators who are expressing supportive views, or that all people who are expressing a view are moved further away from the event than observers who are publicly expressing no view.


The ACLU suit doesnít deny the Secret Serviceís responsibility to protect the president, but rather challenges that segregating protesters into designated protest zones advances that security. ACLU attorneys say that the protest zones have more to do with political security than the presidentís physical security. ìThe individuals we are talking about didnít pose a security threat; they posed a political threat,î Pittsburghís Walczak said.    


"I mean, somebody who was going to attempt an assassination wouldn't be carrying a protest sign. He'd be carrying a sign saying 'I love George!', " retired steelworker and ACLU client Bill Neel, 66, told Salon Magazine for a story it recently published on the nationwide lawsuit. Neel was handcuffed and detained by local officials at a rally in western Pennsylvania last year after he refused to go to a remote ìdesignated free speech zoneî located behind a six-foot chain-link fence. ìIf the Bush Administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind,î Neel told the ACLU. ìAnyone who calls himself a patriot ought to be as concerned about this as I am"


In St. Louis, the stories are similar.


ACLU/EM client Andrew Wimmer describes being arrested at a January visit by President Bush to St. Louis after he refused to move to a designated protest zone several blocks away where he could not be seen by the motorcade. Carrying a small sign reading ìinstead of war, invest in peopleî to protest the Presidentís economic policy he was discussing in St. Louis that day, Wimmer describes telling police he wanted to stay on the street with the many other Bush supporters and attendees. He was arrested, while next to him a woman with a similarly sized sign reading ìWe Love You President Bushî was allowed to stay.   


Ramsey and Gordon were arrested when they attempted to unfurl a peace banner amidst crowds of pro-Bush supporters during a visit by President Bush to St. Charles in November. They were instructed to go to a designated protest area nearly one-quarter mile away or face arrest. ìWe were non-violent protesters,î Gordon said. ìWe were not trying to block traffic. We were not trying to interfere with police business. We were not trying to inhibit entrance or exit.î And Christine Mains was arrested in April after she refused to go to a 20 by 20 foot roped-off area in a field nearly one-quarter away from where President Bush was speaking at the Boeing plant in St. Louis County.    


Ramsey and Wimmer both recall police telling them that they were acting on orders from the Secret Service. The Secret Service has said that local police set up the protest zones. But when Ramseyís organization, the Instead of War Coalition, attempted to contact police about setting up a reasonable area for their protest during President Bushís August visit to St. Louis, police told him they acted based on orders from the Secret Service. 


The protest zones not only have the effect of silencing the voices of dissenters, but also makes them invisible to elected officials and the public at large. "It insulates the government officials from seeing or hearing the protesters and vice-versa, and it gives to the media and the American public the appearance that there exists less dissent than there really is," the ACLU suit contends.


The ACLU has also documented incidents of government crackdowns on dissent in many forms in a report, Freedom Under Fire: Dissent in Post-9/11 America, available online at



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