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    3 protesters sue Tampa police

    They claim their civil rights were violated when they were arrested at a rally for President Bush.

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 2, 2002


    TAMPA -- Mauricio Rosas said he showed up at Legends Field for the President Bush rally 18 months ago to send a peaceful message.

    Amid pro-Bush placards, the gay activist held a small sign that read, "June is Gay Pride Month."

    Rosas' stance didn't last long.

    Rally organizers singled out Rosas and two women as troublemakers. Soon after, Tampa police handcuffed them and led all three away.

    On Friday, the group nicknamed "the Tampa Three" filed a lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, alleging the Police Department violated their civil rights, including their right to peacefully protest.

    "My hope is that this lawsuit helps send a message that the government cannot silence people just because they choose to exercise their right to dissent or to question the government," said Rosas, 38. "Locally, the Police Department officials at all levels need to read and understand the Constitution."

    Tampa police spokesman Joe Durkin said it was department policy not to comment on pending litigation.

    The suit charges the city and the department with unlawful prior restraint and deprivation of First Amendment rights, unlawful arrests and unlawful police misconduct.

    It also challenges the constitutionality of free speech zones in which dissenters are required to stay away from the main rally.

    The suit seeks monetary damages and sanctions against the city. Damages in such cases are capped at $100,000 per plaintiff.

    Tampa attorney W.F. "Casey" Ebsary Jr. said at a news conference Friday that the case wasn't about money or about what individual rally workers or police officers did that day.

    "This case is about the customs, practices and policies of the Tampa Police Deapartment that allowed this to occur," he said.

    At the June 4, 2001, rally, the two women, Janis Lentz and Sonja Haught, were alongside Rosas holding up small signs that said "Boooo!" and "Investigate Florida Votergate." They had tickets to attend the rally, Ebsary said.

    A video taken at the scene shows Bush supporters kicking dirt at the protesters, yelling at them and grabbing their signs. The three protesters yelled back.

    A Republican activist with a walkie-talkie called police to the scene. The GOP volunteers weren't legally authorized to call for the protesters' removal. Police told the protesters that they could stay if they put down the anti-Bush signs. That raised the question of whether police were removing them because of their behavior or the messages on their signs.

    They refused to put down the signs, and the police arrested them on trespassing charges. Haught faced an additional charge of disorderly conduct.

    All three protesters suffered bruises and scrapes. Lentz had her glasses crushed.

    State Attorney Mark Ober later dismissed the charges, saying the evidence would not hold up at trial.

    Lentz, 56, said she and Haught, 61, were "middle-aged grandmothers" doing nothing but exercising their right to express their views. She said she felt "brutalized" and "terrified that these people were going to stomp us."

    "They purported to be Christians," Lentz said. "But they weren't acting as Christians."

    Michael Pheneger, spokesman for the Florida ACLU, said the suit advances the premise that dissenters must be "banished to the back 40."

    Democracy isn't always pretty, he said. All should get a chance to throw their two bits into the marketplace of ideas to hash out issues.

    "The Constitution hasn't been rewritten since Sept. 11," he said. "It is never the case in this country that the majority is allowed to suppress minority views."

    -- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com .

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