ACLU Calls Government Settlement in Anti-Bush T-Shirt Case a Victory for Free Speech

August 16, 2007 12:00 am

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CHARLESTON, WV - The American Civil Liberties Union today announced a successful resolution of the case of Jeffery and Nicole Rank, the young Texas couple arrested on the West Virginia capitol grounds on July 4, 2004 for peacefully expressing their opposition to President Bush. According to the settlement agreement, the United States government will pay the Ranks $80,000.

The Ranks, who wanted to attend the President's Fourth of July address without being mistaken for supporters of his policies, wore homemade t-shirts bearing the international "no" symbol (a circle with a diagonal line across it) superimposed over the word "Bush." One t-shirt said "Love America, Hate Bush" on the back and the other said "Regime Change Starts At Home." Event staff and law enforcement ordered them either to leave the event or remove or cover their shirts. The couple responded by insisting they had a First Amendment right to remain and express their views. The two were arrested for trespassing, handcuffed, and hauled away in a police van. The charges against them were later dismissed and the City of Charleston, not a defendant in the case, apologized for the incident.

"We couldn't believe what was happening to us," said Nicole Rank. "We tried to tell them we had a right to express our opinion in a peaceful way, but they wouldn't listen to us."

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Ranks, alleging that the defendants' actions violated their rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution. With the emergence of a heavily redacted "Presidential Advance Manual" it became clear that the government had a policy of excluding dissenters from public presidential appearances. Among other things, the manual asserts that proper ticket distribution is vital to "deterring potential protesters from attending events" and outlines procedures for minimizing demonstrators and shielding them from the press. "As a last resort," the policy says, "security should remove the demonstrators from the event."

"Although I disagreed with President Bush, I was a Republican before this incident, so it's rather ironic that event organizers are advised to use college/young republican organizations as part of 'rally squads' to oppose messages like ours at presidential appearances," remarked Jeffery Rank, who has since changed his party affiliation.

"This settlement is a real victory not only for our clients but for the First Amendment. The outcome of the case speaks for itself," said Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of the ACLU of West Virginia. "As a result of the Ranks' courageous stand, public officials will think twice before they eject peaceful protestors from public events for exercising their right to dissent."

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