A close eye - and tight grip - on campaign protesters
President Bush was about to arrive at a rally. A couple wearing T-shirts with anti-Bush slogans were sitting just feet from the stage. Charleston, W. Va., police working with the US Secret Service had a quick decision to make.Skip to next paragraph
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What ensued that July 4 was either a prudent choice in high-risk times or a blatant violation of free-speech rights. Police arrested the two for wearing the T-shirts and refusing to relocate to an area for protesters. The arrests of Jeff and Nicole Rank, along with the suit they filed earlier this month against the Secret Service, have become symbols of a defining feature of campaign 2004: security so tight that candidates seldom hear or see their critics in person.
From cordoning off protest zones at the Democratic National Convention to swiftly removing hecklers from several Republican rallies since then, police working closely with the Secret Service have guaranteed that most campaign stops this year have become supporters-only precincts.
The harmony displayed under bright lights for the cameras, however, masks a reality of such great tension in the nation that disturbance-wary police are segregating protesters more than ever, according to longtime campaign watchers. In this, some see a necessary adjustment to the times, while others fear for the future of civic discourse.
"I believe what you're seeing [this year] is almost always a product of 9/11 and worry over terrorism," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus who got his start in politics writing speeches for President Eisenhower. Though he finds today's measures distasteful, the political climate leaves few options, he says. "The president of the United States is likely to get killed, and we have to take precautions."
To the American Civil Liberties Union, however, attempts to insulate a candidate from potential critics amount to an abuse of security safeguards for political advantage. Both parties are guilty, although the Bush administration has used the technique more thoroughly and frequently, says Chris Hansen, an ACLU attorney and the Ranks' lawyer. "It does seem to be a post-9/11 problem. It's a pattern of using security as an excuse to repress dissent. [But] what that argument boils down to is, 'Dissent is dangerous and will inevitably lead to physical attacks.' We shouldn't assume that, and it is wrong to assume that."
Both sides agree that shouting down a speaker is intolerable conduct at a rally. Those who persist in doing so - such as during a Laura Bush speech this month in New Jersey or at a Kerry rally this summer in Flagstaff, Ariz. - get removed and sometimes charged with minor offenses.
But the Ranks' case highlights the new and controversial practice of keeping even silent protesters far away from candidates. The Charleston City Council apologized for the July 4 incident, since the Ranks had tickets, were on public property, and made no obstructive noise.