Fact Sheet

Free Speech Under Fire: The ACLU Challenge to "Protest Zones"

Document Date: September 23, 2003
Affiliate: ACLU of Pennsylvania

Fact Sheet

WASHINGTON – In many cities across the country, the Secret Service has discriminated against protesters during Presidential and Vice Presidential appearances. Such incidents have spiked under the Bush Administration, prompting the ACLU to charge government officials with a “”pattern and practice”” of discrimination against those who disagree with its policies.

Following is just a partial list of incidents from around the nation. In some cases, the ACLU is representing the individuals or groups involved. But because these cases are too numerous to litigate individually, the ACLU has asked a federal court for a nationwide injunction barring the Secret Service from directing local police to restrict protesters’ access to appearances by President Bush and other senior Administration officials.

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.

Phoenix, Arizona
On September 27, 2002, President Bush came to the downtown Civic Center for a fund-raising dinner for two local candidates. A coalition of groups opposed to a variety of the President’s policies, consisting of approximately 1,500 people, negotiated with the local police for a demonstration permit. Phoenix police advised the protesters that the President had requested a federal protection zone. These protesters were required to stand across the street from the Civic Center. People carrying signs supporting the President’s policies and spectators not visibly expressing any views were allowed to stand closer. Eleanor Eisenberg, director of the local ACLU, was present as a legal observer. When mounted police in riot gear charged into the crowd without warning, Eisenberg, who was across the street taking photos, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped.

Stockton, California
On August 23, 2002, at an appearance in a local park to support a Republican gubernatorial candidate, protesters were ordered behind a row of large, Greyhound-sized buses, which placed them out of sight and earshot of their intended audience. They were advised that if they went to the other side of the buses, a location visible to those attending the event, they would be arrested. People who carried signs supporting the President’s policies and spectators not visibly expressing any views were allowed to gather in front of the buses, where event attendees could see them. Local police told the protesters that the decision to force them behind the buses had been made by the Secret Service.

Evansville, Indiana

On February 6, 2002, Vice President Cheney was scheduled to appear at the local Civic Center. John Blair, a local activist, walked back and forth on the sidewalk across the street from the Civic Center carrying a sign reading “Cheney – 19th C. Energy Man.” When Blair stopped walking, he was ordered to move to a “protest zone” more than a block away from the Civic Center. When he refused to do so, he was arrested. Spectators or passers-by who did not express any views about the Vice President’s policies were allowed to walk on the sidewalk in front of the Civic Center. Blair, represented by the ACLU, successfully challenged the arrest. But the lawsuit remains in force because the city has refused to acknowledge that it had no right to ignore Blair’s constitutional rights.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
At President Bush’s appearance at Western Michigan University on March 27, 2001, a protester was carrying a sign sarcastically commenting on the prior Presidential election (“Welcome Governor Bush”). A Western Michigan policeman ordered him to go to a “protest zone” behind an athletic building located 150-200 yards from the parade route. After the protestor was ordered to move, several hundred people who were not carrying signs congregated in the area where the lone protester had stood and were allowed to remain there. The protest zone was located so that people sent there could not be seen by the President or his motorcade. When the protester refused to enter the protest zone, but insisted on standing where other people had been allowed to gather, he was arrested. Local police testified at his trial that the decisions had been made by the Secret Service.

St. Louis, Missouri
On November 4, 2002, one day before Election Day, the President came to the St. Charles Family Arena. Two protesters carrying signs critical of the President’s policy on Iraq were ordered into a “protest zone” approximately one-quarter mile away, a location completely out of sight of the building. When the protesters refused, they were arrested. Meanwhile, protesters carrying signs supporting Republican candidates in the election were not ordered into the protest zone, were allowed closer to the President, and were not arrested.

On January 22, 2003, President Bush came to town to announce an economic plan. Protesters carrying signs opposing the economic plan and criticizing the President’s foreign policy were sent to a “protest zone” located in a public park, three blocks away and down an embankment from where the President was speaking. Neither people attending the event nor people in the motorcade could see the protesters in the protest zone. One protester was arrested for refusing to enter the protest zone. Standing near the location where the protester was arrested was a group of people who were not asked to move, including a woman who carried a sign reading, “We Love You President Bush.” She was neither ordered into the protest zone nor arrested. Local police told the arrested protester that they were acting at the direction of the Secret Service.

Trenton, New Jersey
On September 22, 2002, the President arrived to speak at a fundraiser for a U.S. Representative at the Sovereign Bank Arena. There were 200-300 protesters who sought to protest around issues such as the war in Iraq and prescription drug policies. They were told that they had to go to a protest zone that was set up in Parking Lot 5 of the arena, which is on the other side of a double-divided four-lane highway with barricades in the middle and high wire on both sides. Some of the protesters walked around to the front of the arena where they observed pro-Bush demonstrators standing. Protesters were told that the local police had to consult the Secret Service about the location of the protest zone.

Albuquerque, New Mexico
On April 29, 2002, the President came to a somewhat isolated hotel in town to attend a fund-raising luncheon for a local member of Congress. Protesters opposed to the policies of the President, many carrying signs opposing the anticipated war in Iraq, were sent to a “protest zone” across the street from the hotel where the President was speaking. People who supported the policies of the President were allowed to be closer to the hotel. Other people were allowed free access to the hotel.

Neville Island, Pennsylvania

On September 2, 2002, protesters were sent to a “designated free speech zone” located on a large baseball field located one-third of a mile away from where President Bush was speaking. Only people carrying signs critical of the President were required to enter and remain. Many people carrying signs supporting the President and his policies were allowed to stand alongside the motorcade route right up to where the President was speaking. But when retired steelworker Bill Neel refused to enter the protest zone and insisted on being allowed to stand where the President’s supporters were standing, he was arrested for disorderly conduct and detained until the President had departed. The ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh represented Neel and had all charges against him dismissed. Local police testified at his trial that the security policies, including the protest zone location, were dictated by the Secret Service.

Columbia, South Carolina
On October 24, 2002, the President was scheduled to arrive at the Columbia airport. One protester, Brett Bursey, was carrying a sign opposed to the policies of the President two hundred yards from the hangar where the President’s plane was to arrive. He was ordered to a protest zone over a half-mile from that location. Several hundred protesters with signs that supported the policies of the President were allowed to stand closer to the hangar. When Bursey insisted on being allowed to remain where other members of the public stood, he was arrested on state and federal criminal charges. In May 2003, a group of 11 Congressmen urged Attorney General Ashcroft to drop the charges, saying that the government’s prosecution of Bursey was a mistake “and is in fact a threat to the freedom of expression we should all be defending.” To read the letter, go to http://www.house.gov/frank/scprotester2003.html

Houston, Texas
In September 2002, the President came to the Hyatt Regency Hotel to speak on behalf of a local Congressional representative running for the U.S. Senate. Approximately 300 people marched from city hall to a designated “protest zone” in a plaza near the hotel. The plaza was up a one-way street and could only be seen from the hotel entrance at a severe angle. The plaza was not on the President’s motorcade route and could not be seen by individuals entering the hotel to attend the President’s speech. Individuals not expressing a viewpoint were allowed to walk on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

Richmond, Virginia
On June 23, 2003, the Vice President came to a fundraiser at the Jefferson Hotel. The approximately 100 protesters opposing the policies of the President were required to go across Franklin Avenue from the hotel. Spectators not visibly expressing any views were allowed to walk on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

Washington, D.C.
On June 17, 2003, the President spoke at the Hilton Hotel. Protesters from the Children’s Defense Fund criticizing the President’s policies were picketing on the north side of T Street, adjacent to the hotel. A Secret Service agent, who showed them his badge, directed the protesters across the street. Spectators not visibly expressing any views were allowed to walk on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

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