Targeting the First Amendment

By Nat Hentoff

This is the second of two columns on President Bush’s version of the First Amendment.

Nicole and Jeffrey Rank decided that on July 4, 2004, that they would tell the president directly, and peaceably, their views of a number of his policies. They were in the audience on that Independence Day when George W. Bush spoke in Charleston, W.Va. On the front of their T-shirts was the word, “Bush,” crossed out. The back of Nicole’s read, “Love America, Hate Bush;” and the back of Jeffrey’s declared, “Regime Change Begins at Home.”

White House advance-team staff members ordered the young couple to remove or cover their shirts or leave the event. Since they were on public property and were not being disruptive, the Ranks refused, pointing out that they were within their First Amendment rights of free speech. Then there was a disruption. The advance team instructed the local police to arrest the Ranks for trespassing and to forcibly remove them in handcuffs. They were jailed briefly, and criminal charges were filed against them.

“We couldn’t believe what was happening to us,” said American citizen Nicole Rank. “We tried to tell them we had a right to express our opinions in a peaceful way, but they wouldn’t listen to us.” They wouldn’t listen because they were obeying the Presidential Advance Manual that details the ways in which protesters at presidential appearances must be “deterred” and, if possible, kept out of the sight of the president and the press.

I am able to tell you about the Presidential Advance Manual because the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Ranks and the First Amendment. In the course of this legal action, the White House’s instructions were obtained on how to safeguard the president of the United States from peaceful protest even on the Fourth of July.

The president, I know, reads history, including American history, and I suggest he also read carefully the Presidential Advance Manual, from the Office of Presidential Advice, released in October 2002 and still in effect. I believe he will be embarrassed by it, and I hope he takes appropriate action.

Because of the ACLU lawsuit, appropriate action in accord with the Bill of Rights has been taken. Last month, the U.S. government settled the lawsuit, paying the Ranks $80,000 plus mediation costs, but admitting no wrongdoing. Criminal charges against them have been dismissed, and the temporary suspension of Nicole Rank from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where she works, was lifted.

In this case (there are others pending around the country about the First Amendment’s having been clubbed by the Presidential Advance Manual) the First Amendment is no longer imperiled in Charleston, W.Va.

There is a welcome addition to this partial redemption of the First Amendment, from which all our liberties flow, that merits further attention. On July 19, 2004, the City Council of Charleston (not a defendant in this case) unanimously passed a commendable, patriotic resolution apologizing to Jeff and Nicole Rank.

In what civics classes are left in the nation’s public school system, I suggest this resolution be obtained and discussed. It begins: “Whereas, the founders of this nation declared that principles of law, enumerated in a Constitution and its Amendments, would govern them and those who followed, as opposed to the arbitrary will and rules of the King of England (as detailed in the Declaration of Independence)...

“That first Independence Day 228 years ago preserved the right of every citizen to express himself or herself peacefully (in a non-obscene manner)... regardless of whether that expression is popular, or unpopular... a view of the majority or the minority...

“Knowing what we know now, with the advantage of having information that was not available to the (Charleston) officers when they acted... Nicole and Jeff Rank should not have been arrested...

“If Nicole and Jeff Rank did nothing more than wear T-shirts which expressed their personal views and political opinions, and if that was the real reason that event officials (following the Presidential Advance Manual) directed our officers to arrest them, then Nicole and Jeff Rank deserve an apology... and the City does hereby apologize to Nicole and Jeff Rank.” As of this writing, there has been no apology from President Bush.

Mr. President, there should be. As Samuel Adams, a principal igniter of the American Revolution, said, “Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.”

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. May be linked to but not republished without Hentoff's permission. Originally posted on The Washington Times Web site on Sept. 17. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Village Voice in New York.