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New Free Speech Zones Mock First Amendment

American Free Press | Jan 31 2004


It was the second time around when last October Brett Bursey was arrested while protesting a president’s arrival at Columbia airport in South Carolina. Thirty-three years ago, at the same airport, Bursey was seized by Secret Service agents protesting the Vietnam War as he held a placard denouncing President Richard Nixon’s visit to the state. On that occasion, he was fortunate when a state court judge ruled that a protester could not be charged with trespassing on public property.

This time, the state court also dropped charges, but that was not the end of the matter. The U.S. attorney in South Carolina, J. Strom Thurmond Jr., son of the late Sen. Thurmond, stepped in and charged Bursey with “threatening the president.” The charge was filed under an obscure statute that permits the Secret Service to restrict access to areas visited by a president. The statute has only been used 12 times by the courts since 1992.

On Jan. 6, a federal judge dismissed Bursey’s defense that he was entitled to free speech and ruled that he had broken a law designed to shield President Bush. Bursey was fined $500 and immediately announced he would appeal.

“We are appealing because this establishes the bad legal precedent that the Secret Service has no limits on the size of restricted zones they establish around the president. We believe that it is important that we appeal, because the ever increasing size of the sanitized areas around the president makes a mockery of the First Amendment,” declared Bursey.

According to Bursey, his most recent ordeal began on October 24 while he was waiting for President Bush’s plane to land. He was with other protesters, holding a sign condemning Bush administration policies but was the only protester arrested. Law enforcement officials made no attempt to detain or bother pro-Bush supporters gathered nearby.

Bursey claims he was not arrested because he was a threat to the president’s physical security, but because the White House has a policy of keeping protesters out of sight of the president and media. The restricted zone where he was arrested was over 70 acres and stretched for a mile.

Bursey is no stranger to the law. In 1970 he was jailed for 18 months for vandalizing a military draft office in Columbia in protest at the Vietnam War.

The son of a Navy dentist, he grew up on the military base at Parris Island, S.C. Nowadays, he is executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, a coalition of more than 50 organizations.

His experience has a resonance in other protest cases. On Labor Day 2002, retired steelworker Bill Neel, 65, found himself on the wrong side of the law during a Bush visit. Local police, at the Secret Service’s behest, set up a “designated free-speech zone” on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence, a third of a mile from the location where the president was to give a speech.

Neel was carrying a placard proclaiming, “The Bush family must surely love the poor; they made so many of us.” When police cleared the path of the presidential motorcade of protesters with signs, Neel refused to go to the designated area. His placard was confiscated, and he was arrested for “disorderly conduct.” No effort was made by law enforcement to interfere with pro-Bush supporters.

“As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind,” he later declared.

District Judge Shirley Rowe Trkula threw out the charge against him. “I believe this is America. I don’t agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” she told him.

There have also been allegations that the government repressed protests during several Bush visits to the St. Louis area, especially on Jan. 22, 2003, when 150 people carrying signs were shunted far away from the main action and effectively quarantined.

A spokeswoman for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri commented: “No one could see them from the street. In addition, the media was not allowed to talk to them. The police would not allow any media inside the protest area and wouldn’t allow any of the protesters out of the ‘protest zone’ to talk to the media.”
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