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Monday, February 06, 2006

Silencing dissent a growing trend

The ejection of two women from the U.S. Capitol for wearing message T-shirts during President Bush's State of the Union speech this week was the latest incident in a growing trend of stifling dissent.

Capitol Police later apologized for ejecting the women -- after one of them, the wife of a
congressman, complained bitterly, as did her husband. The police acknowledged they'd acted
overzealously. But their actions weren't atypical in today's overheated political climate. Protesters outside political conventions are herded behind razor wire far from the action, citizens wearing a rival candidate's stickers are forcefully ejected from presidential campaign
rallies on public property, and those who heckle the president or broadcast issue ads within
60 days of an election can be prosecuted.

Silencing dissent isn't unique to the national government. Former New York Mayor Rudy
Giuliani once ordered city buses to remove an ad for the New Yorker magazine that made fun
of him. Nor is it limited to one political party, noted Robert O'Neill, director of the Thomas
Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression at the University of Virginia.
Both major parties limit speech at their national conventions, inside and out, he said.

In 1992, for example, the Democrats refused to allow an abortion opponent, the late
Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, to speak from the podium. And when three anti-war protesters stood in the upper balcony of San Francisco's Masonic Auditorium last week during an appearance by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and yelled, ``Hillary, stop supporting the war,'' they were quickly escorted away.

This trend has a chilling effect on those who disagree with people in power, analysts say.
``The long-term consequence is a higher degree of self-censorship,'' O'Neill said. ``Society
is the poorer when deprived of the marketplace of ideas.''

The incident at Bush's State of the Union address was one of dissent via T-shirts. Anti-war
activist Cindy Sheehan of Berkeley wore one that proclaimed ``2245 dead. How many more?''
Police charged her with a misdemeanor for unlawful disruptive conduct in the Capitol.
Police also ejected Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., for wearing a shirt
saying ``Support the Troops -- Defending Our Freedom.''

It wasn't the first time police have ejected Capitol visitors who wore message T-shirts --
and the practice isn't limited to the Capitol.

In Denver last year, three people were thrown out of a Bush town-hall meeting on Social
Security after arriving in a car sporting a bumper sticker proclaiming ``No more blood for
oil'' and wore T-shirts under their other clothes that said ``Stop the Lies.''

Evicting people who oppose the president, even if they don't say a word, was a carry-over
from Bush's 2004 presidential campaign.
In Charleston, W.Va., a couple was arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts to a Bush rally
in the state Capitol building on the Fourth of July. Police said they acted under orders
from federal officials. The charges were later dropped.

In Saginaw, Mich., Bush campaign workers ejected a woman for wearing a pro-choice T-shirt.
The campaign said it had to throw out people who might make a scene.

In 2004, protesters at both national party conventions were herded into areas far away from
delegates, officials and the news media. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston,
protesters were kept in enclosed areas surrounded by fences topped with razor wire and
watched by armed police.

It's a crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, to ``disrupt'' an event guarded by
the Secret Service, which includes presidential rallies. A proposed extension of the Patriot
Act now being negotiated in Congress would broaden such prohibitions to other vaguely
defined national events.

But no one's been convicted yet of a T-shirt violation, and such prosecutions probably would
be challenged as an affront to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. The Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that it wasn't illegal to wear an obscene anti-Vietnam war jacket in a California courthouse, despite a state law prohibiting such messages because
they might incite violence.

Bans on certain shirts and shouts are not the only ways dissent is stifled. A 2002
campaign-finance reform designed to regulate the flow of money into politics prohibited
broadcast of issue ads within 60 days of elections. ``We were not allowed to take out radio ads,'' said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. ``We wanted to do ads calling on both party candidates to oppose the Patriot Act. That is now a crime. If we had done that, I would have faced a five-year prison term.''

The Supreme Court recently ordered a three-judge panel to re-examine the prohibition, which
could lead to lifting the ban, but not until after the 2006 elections.

For more information goto Mercury News


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