A matter of fairness

Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2003 at 12:00 a.m.
Under the U.S. Constitution, can people who are visibly or vocally opposed to a public official or candidate be kept far away from where that person is making a public appearance while his visible supporters are allowed much closer proximity?
That's the basic question raised by a federal court lawsuit filed against the Secret Service recently by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of four groups that have protested at public appearances by President George W. Bush. They say they have just as much right to express their views within sight of the president as his supporters.
It's an important question, and it goes well beyond current personalities and issues. Public protest is a long-standing tradition in this country, and any attempts to stifle it must clear a very high bar.
No one disputes the necessity for protecting the president during his public appearances. The question is where is the line drawn between prudent protective measures and the repression of free expression.
"Protecting our nation's leaders from harm is important," said an ACLU official. "Protecting our nation's leaders from dissent is unconstitutional."
History doesn't give much support to the idea of fencing off peaceful protesters for personal protection. When presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and critically wounded during a campaign appearance in 1972, the shooting was done by Arthur Bremer, who was wearing pro-Wallace attire. President William McKinley was fatally wounded in 1901 by a man who pretended to be shaking his hand. While it's always possible that a protester could attempt to do harm to a public figure, it's much more likely that an assassin would be disguised as a supporter.
So the repeated actions of the Secret Service and local police in banishing protesters to far-away "free speech zones" have the appearance of what is known in First Amendment law as "viewpoint discrimination." Only those who appear to be supporters are allowed to be in visible positions.
"At a time when the United States is trying to bring democracy and free speech to Iraq, the Secret Service is trampling on the free-speech rights of those who dissent," according to an ACLU official from Pennsylvania. The lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia and alleged similar patterns of segregating protesters in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbia, S.C., Phoenix, St. Louis and Stockton, Calif. Although it wasn't mentioned in the suit, similar complaints have been raised about protesters' treatment during a presidential visit to Tampa.
The Secret Service declined to address the allegations specifically, but issued a general statement saying: "The Secret Service does not comment on pending litigation. However, we have a longstanding policy of recognizing the constitutionally protected right of the public to demonstrate and voice their views to their elected officials."
So the question for a federal court to decide is whether being herded off to a protest area a half-mile or more away from the actual event is the same as being allowed to "voice their views to their elected officials."
For the sake of free speech and vigorous political debate, let's hope the judge decides it isn't.

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