WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union national office today filed a federal lawsuit against a former high-level White House staffer for enacting a policy that unlawfully excluded individuals perceived to be critical of the administration from public events where President Bush was present. The policy is laid out in an October 2002 "Presidential Advance Manual" obtained by the ACLU.
"The White House has gone too far in its attempt to make dissent invisible," said Chris Hansen, a senior ACLU attorney who is lead counsel in this case. "When taxpayers foot the bill for a public event, the president does not have the right to use a partisan litmus test to stack the audience with his political supporters."
The ACLU filed today's lawsuit after obtaining a heavily redacted version of the Presidential Advance Manual from the Justice Department. This manual is the Bush administration's guide for planning presidential events around the country, and it repeatedly instructs organizers about "the best method for preventing demonstrators," "deterring potential protestors from attending events," "designat[ing] a protest area . . . preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade route," and the like.
The ACLU said it is clear from the manual that the aim of the White House policy is to keep people who are critical of the president away from him and from the news media. According to the manual, "if it is determined that the media will not see or hear" demonstrators, then event staff can ignore them. The manual's guidelines are designed for use at all presidential events, not just fundraisers or political rallies. However, the ACLU noted that there are stricter constitutional guidelines for taxpayer-funded events than for privately- or politically-funded events.
"When the president attends a public event, the First Amendment does not allow him to speak or listen only to those who agree with him," said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area and co-counsel in the lawsuit. "Public places cannot be 'cleansed' of all dissent just to make the president look popular on television."
The ACLU is suing Gregory Jenkins, former Director of the White House Office of Presidential Advance and a Deputy Assistant to President Bush, for setting the policy in the manual. Jenkins' policies have led to the removal and, in some cases, arrest of innocent people from taxpayer-funded events. The lawsuit names as plaintiffs Jeff and Nicole Rank, who were arrested at a Fourth of July presidential appearance at the West Virginia State Capitol because they were wearing t-shirts critical of the president, and Alex Young and Leslie Weise, Denver residents who were thrown out of a town hall meeting with President Bush because they had an anti-war bumper sticker on their car.
The Ranks had tickets to attend the July 4, 2004 event, but drew attention when they removed their outer garments to display t-shirts bearing the international "no" symbol (a circle with a diagonal line across it) superimposed over the word "Bush." Although other people in the audience were allowed to wear pro-Bush paraphernalia, White House event staff demanded that the Ranks remove or cover their t-shirts. When the Ranks refused, the White House staffers instructed local police to arrest the couple, causing them to be removed from the Capitol grounds in handcuffs, jailed and charged with trespassing. Ms. Rank was also temporarily suspended from her work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. City officials later apologized for their part in the arrest when they realized they'd been used as political operatives by the White House.
Similarly, Weise and Young had tickets to attend the March 21, 2005 Denver town hall on Social Security, but they were singled out after a staffer was informed that Weise had a bumper sticker on her car that read, "No More Blood for Oil." Weise was stopped upon entering the event and warned that she had been "ID'd," but was allowed to enter. However, shortly after reaching their seats, Weise and Young were forcibly removed from the event by a staffer who later admitted that he was acting under orders from White House officials.
"Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of the American way of life and public forums are the place where this matters most. Peaceful expression, whatever the format, is vital to all of us. We believe this case is important for protecting the rights of all Americans," Weise and Young said in a joint statement.
Mr. Rank added, "The free exchange of ideas is essential to democracy, and when government suppresses one side of that exchange it puts democracy in peril."
The ACLU lawsuit also cites other occasions throughout the country in which individuals were excluded from presidential events because of their political views. For example, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, ticket holders in line to hear the president speak had to unbutton their shirts before they could get inside. One individual was wearing a t-shirt critical of the president, and was ejected by security officials. In Fargo, North Dakota, several dozen individuals were placed on a "do not admit list" of those forbidden to attend a presidential event; most of the individuals on the list belonged to a liberal organization, and some had written letters to the editor opposing the president's policies. And in Tucson, Arizona, a student was barred from a presidential forum on Social Security because he was wearing a Young Democrats t-shirt.
Today's lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The ACLU previously filed lawsuits in West Virginia and Colorado on behalf of the Ranks and Weise and Young, respectively. Both cases are pending in federal district court. Another ACLU lawsuit charging mistreatment of anti-Bush demonstrators at a presidential appearance is pending in federal district court in Oregon (Moss v. United States Secret Service).
The Denver case is Weise v. Jenkins and is in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. In addition to Hansen and Silverstein, attorneys in the case are Catherine Crump of the national ACLU and Martha Tierney and Jerremy Ramp of Denver-based law firm Kelly Haglund Garnsey & Kahn, who are acting as ACLU of Colorado cooperating attorneys.
Weise and Young have created their own web site with background information on the incident at: www.denverthree.org.