Dissent will not be tolerated

In the latest version of a familiar story, three Denver residents say they were thrown out of a Bush event because they disagreed with the president.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 30, 2005 3:08PM (EST)

Its a familiar story by now, but we're still taken aback every time we hear that it has happened again: U.S. citizens are prohibited from attending events where George W. Bush appears if they happen to disagree with the president's policies.

News of the latest incident is in today's Washington Post: Three Denver residents say they were forcibly removed from a Bush event on Social Security last week after someone spotted a bumper sticker on their car that read, "No More Blood for Oil." The Post's story reads just like every other one we've seen: The Secret Service doesn't say much, and the White House blames a local volunteer. As the Post reports, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said a volunteer asked the three to leave "out of concern they might try to disrupt the event." McClellan said anyone who comes to an event with the intention of disrupting it would be asked to leave. "There is plenty of opportunity outside of the event to express their views," he said.

Where to begin? First, the Denver residents say they weren't "asked to leave." Their lawyer says that a man in a blue suit approached them, told them they had to leave, and in a "forcible physical way," escorted them out of the event. Second, the three say they had no intention of disrupting the event. While they wore "Stop the Lies" T-shirts under their business attire, they say they had decided not to expose the T-Shirts during the event. (It's fair to wonder if they really would have resisted the temptation, but it's also fair to note that the White House now seems to be promoting a version of its preemption doctrine when it comes to free speech: If people "might try to disrupt an event," it's better to throw them out before the smoking gun becomes a protest sign.) Third, there may be "plenty of opportunity" to express one's views "outside of the event," but between the security outside the event and the media attention inside, there's virtually no chance that any "expression of views" outside the event will get the attention of either the president or the general public.

Then there's the whole question of the First Amendment -- and the right of the citizenry to attend events paid for with government funds. It was one thing for Bush-Cheney '04 to bar unfriendlies from its campaign events; it's another for ticket-holding taxpayers to be denied entrance to events at which the president discusses the future of Social Security.

But if the Republicans see that distinction, their practices don't show it. In Tucson, Ariz., last week, a college student was prevented from entering one of Bush's Social Security event because he was wearing a t-shirt from the University of Arizona's Young Democrats. Steven Gerner, a political science and pre-pharmacy major at the University of Arizona, told the Daily Wildcat that a staff member read his T-shirt, asked to see his ticket, then crumpled it up. Twenty minutes later, the staffer returned and told Gerner that his name had been added to a list banning him from entering the event.

And in Fargo, N.D., last month, more than 40 local residents found themselves on a list of people who wouldn't be allowed into a Bush appearance there. Most of them had one thing in common: Membership in a Howard Dean Democracy for America Meetup group.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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