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President seems unable to bear the sight or sound of dissent

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002


President Bush seems to think bullying is the only way to deal with dissent. Bush has so much trouble articulating a defense for his own policies, so little capacity to formulate a reasoned response, that he resorts to shibboleths, name-calling or worse, using authorities to shut down his critics.

Classic Bush was his attack on Senate Democrats who refused to go along with his plan to strip workers at the new Department of Homeland Security of civil service rights. He quipped that senators were "not interested in the security of the American people."

Of course, U.S. senators can take care of themselves. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle made quick work of Bush's scurrilous claims, pointing out to the former Texas National Guardsman that a number of Senate Democrats were actually injured fighting for the security of our country.

But there are plenty of regular Joes out there who don't have access to the halls of power or C-Span, whose criticism of the administration has been sidelined by law enforcement.

In town after town where Bush has come to raise money or make a speech, his venue and the route leading up to it have been purged of protesters. This is accomplished through the combined efforts of local policing agencies and the secret service, which scour the crowd for any hint of opposition. Anyone with an anti-Bush sign is relegated into what is euphemistically called a Free Speech or Demonstration Zone -- a swath of land usually off the main thoroughfare and chained off so as to make it virtually impossible for the targets of the protest to read the signs or hear the chants. Those with pro-Bush signs are often treated very differently. They are free to cheerlead the president as he rides toward his engagement, which typically is further sanitized by being invitation-only.

This kind of censorship is indicative of a leader who lacks confidence in his own powers of persuasion and the legitimacy of his course. Why else would Bush be so interested in hiding evidence of dissent within the American populace?

The Secret Service claims that security concerns justify the use of segregated zones for protesters. That's a lot of bunk. As long as demonstrators do not impede the flow of traffic they have a right to be anywhere the general public is invited. Think about the freedom we would be giving up if police could cage anyone who wants to exercise his or her First Amendment rights.

As Bill Neel of Butler, Penn., says, "(Under the Constitution,) the whole country is a free speech zone." Neel, 65, a retired steelworker, was arrested on Labor Day for stepping outside the fence where he and a small group of protesters were cordoned off as the president made his way by motorcade for a speech to union carpenters. His sign read: "The Bushes must truly love the poor -- they've made so many of us." Bush supporters waving signs and flags were allowed to freely line the route.

Neel was charged with disorderly conduct and has a hearing on Oct. 31 at which he intends to fight the charge with the help of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. His story is part of a disturbing national pattern.

Peter Buckley, a 45-year-old Democratic candidate for Congress in Oregon, expressed his frustration with the Free Speech Zones in a commentary for the Oregonian. In August, Buckley was part of a group of people who had turned out to protest Bush's economic policies among other things. They were herded into a dirt compound surrounded by a six-foot cyclone fence, 200 yards from the arena where Bush spoke to 5,000 invited guests.

"We were not allowed anywhere near any kind of position where the president, or the media which follows him, would see or hear us," Buckley wrote. "What is happening everywhere Mr. Bush goes is wrong. The effort being made to hide political opposition in this country is more than cowardly. It's un-American."

In Tampa, three people, including two grandmothers, were arrested last year at a Bush rally when they held up opposition signs outside the far-flung demonstration zone. Once again, people with supportive signs went unmolested. The charges against the three were later dropped as baseless, and a civil rights suit is expected to be filed within weeks against the Tampa Police Department.

In the past, courts have ruled protest pens invalid. Americans have a right to address grievances to their president when he appears in public, even if that ruins a particular "photo op."

My advice to Bush is to thicken his skin and work on the sagacity of his arguments.

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