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Iowa women banned from Bush rally sue

Thursday, October 12, 2006

When school was canceled to accommodate a campaign visit by President Bush, the two 55-year-old teachers reckoned the time was ripe to voice their simmering discontent.

Christine Nelson showed up at the time at the Cedar Rapids rally with a Kerry-Edwards button pinned on her T-shirt; Alice McCabe had clutched a small, paper sign stating "No More War." What could be more American, they thought, than mixing a little dissent with the bunting and buzz of a get-out-the-vote rally?

Their reward: a pair of handcuffs and a strip search at the county jail.

Authorities say they were arrested because they refused to obey reasonable security restrictions, but the women disagree: "Because I had a dissenting opinion, they did what they needed to do to get me out of the way," said Nelson, who teaches history and government.

"I tell my students all the time about how people came to this country for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, that those rights and others are sacred. And all along I've been thinking to myself, 'not at least during this administration.'"

Their experience is hardly unique.

In the months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war.

Similar things have happened at official, taxpayer-funded, presidential visits, before and after the election. Some targeted by security have been escorted from events, while others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped by local prosecutors.

Now, in federal courthouses from Charleston to Denver, federal and state officials are being forced to defend themselves against lawsuits challenging the policies.

The cases generally accuse federal officials of developing security measures to identify, segregate, deny entry or expel dissenters.

Jeff Rank and his wife, Nicole filed a lawsuit after being handcuffed and booted from a July 4, 2004, appearance by the president in West Virginia. The Ranks had tickets to see the president speak, but contend they were arrested and charged with trespassing for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.

"It's nothing more than an attempt by the president and his staff to suppress free speech," said Andrew Schneider, director of the state's ACLU office.

"The lawsuit is an attempt to make the administration accountable for what we believe were illegal actions," he said.

In Cedar Rapids, McCabe and Nelson are suing three unnamed Secret Service agents, the Iowa State Patrol and two deputies who took part in their arrest. Nelson and McCabe, who now lives in Memphis, Tenn., accuse law enforcement of violating their right to free speech.

The two women say they were political novices, unprepared for what happened on Sept. 3, 2004.

Soon after arriving at Noelridge Park, a sprawling urban playground, McCabe and Nelson were approached by Secret Service agents in Bermuda shorts. They were told that the Republicans had rented the park and they would have to move because the sidewalk was now private property.

McCabe and Nelson say they complied, but moments later were again told to move, this time across the street. After being told to move a third time, Nelson asked why she was being singled out. In response, she says, they were arrested. Charges were later dropped.

A spokesman for the Secret Service and a spokesperson for the White House each declined to comment. But Justice Department lawyers, in documents filed recently in federal court, defend the Secret Service agents' actions.

They contend the GOP obtained exclusive rights to use the park, and insist McCabe and Nelson were disobedient. "At no time did any political message expressed by the two women play any role in how (the agents) treated them," they wrote.

Supporters of the two Iowans say their right to voice opinions and be heard, even by the president, were taken away.

The ACLU has sued several presidents over attempts to silence opposition, as in 1997, when President Clinton tried to prevent protesters from lining his inaugural parade route.

"In my mind, it all started with Nixon. He was the first presidential candidate to really make an effort to control their image and disrupt public interruption at events," said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Political experts agree Bush has gone to greater lengths than any past campaign to choreograph partisan rallies free of embarrassing moments.



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