ACLU Sues Tampa for Violating Protestors' Free Speech Rights at Bush Rally

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
November 1, 2002 12:00 am

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TAMPA, FL – The Tampa Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today filed a federal lawsuit against Tampa officials for civil rights violations stemming from the wrongful arrest of two grandmothers and a gay activist during a rally organized last year for President George W. Bush and Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

“We weren’t exactly 20-year-old rabble rousers,” said Jan Lentz, a grandmother who carried an “Investigate Florida Votergate” sign demanding an investigation into Florida’s 2000 election fiasco.

Local and federal law enforcement officers forcibly removed Lentz from the rally in handcuffs. “Our intention was not to make any trouble,” Lentz said. “We came down there to register our disapproval of the President in a totally peaceful way, but instead we were treated like criminals.”

The case arose on June 4, 2001, when Lentz, Mauricio Rosas and Sonja Haught — one carrying a sign that said “Boo!” — arrived with tickets in hand at the security checkpoint at Legend’s Field, the stadium selected as the rally site. Shortly after entering the stadium, they were approached by security personnel who demanded, “Lose the sign and you can stay.” Security personnel at no point asked other rally attendees to remove their signs, which for the most part were favorable of the President and Governor, the ACLU said in legal papers.

When the three protestors declined to give up their signs, they were handcuffed and led down a tunnel to the basement of the stadium, where they were held for several hours.

“I wanted the President to see my message,” said Mauricio Rosas, a gay activist who attended the rally to protest President Bush’s refusal to sign a proclamation acknowledging June as Gay Pride Month. “We had a right to be there to protest in a peaceful and respectful way.”

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the police officers removing the protestors were overly aggressive. The officer removing Lentz from the field used Lentz’s body as a shield to force her way through the crowd. In doing so, Lentz was pushed onto an 81-year-old man. The man suffered lacerations to his head and other injuries requiring medical treatment.

Prior to being released, Lentz, Rosas and Haught were charged with trespassing and ordered to appear in court. Haught received an additional charge of disorderly conduct. After being held, they were escorted back to their cars and told not to return. The criminal charges against the three were eventually dropped.

“The protestors were entitled — just like the hundreds of other people at the rally — to lawfully exercise their free speech rights, but they were arrested in an attempt to silence them and shield the government from criticism, ” said ACLU cooperating attorney W.F. “Casey” Ebsary, Jr. of Tampa.

Filed in the Tampa Division of U.S. District Court, the ACLU’s lawsuit seeks damages and other sanctions against the city on behalf of Lentz, Haught and Rosas. In addition to Ebsary, the ACLU cooperating attorneys litigating this case are Will Knight and Luke Lirot, also of Tampa.

The legal complaint is online at /node/34989.

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