tampabay.com

Speak out, but at your own risk

A Times Editorial
Published October 5, 2006


Compliments are fine, rousing cheers are even better, but don't let officials catch you criticizing the president and vice president when they make a public appearance. That could land you in the pokey.

That's where Steven Howards, an environmental consultant from Golden, Colo., found himself after he had the nerve to denounce the war in front of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Imagine that. An American citizen who thinks the administration has gotten it wrong on Iraq and says so is handcuffed by a Secret Service agent and charged with a crime for exercising his right of free speech.

According to Howards, he was taking his 8-year-old son to piano lessons on June 16 when he spotted Cheney at an outdoor mall. Howards said he was within two feet of the vice president when he calmly said something to the effect of, "I think your policies on Iraq are reprehensible." About 10 minutes later, Howards said, he was walking back through the area when he was stopped and handcuffed by a Secret Service agent who told him he would be charged with assaulting the vice president. A charge of harassment was later dropped.

Howards is now suing the agent for a violation of his free speech rights, among other things. He says he was arrested purely for "what I said."

It is truly incomprehensible that such a scenario can play out in a country where freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution. Since President Bush took office, the Secret Service and White House operatives have been aggressively shielding him and Cheney from protestors and public critics. When these leaders appear at events, they are almost always greeted by friendly audiences, while protesters are often banished far from event venues. It is a practice totally at odds with our national traditions of tolerating, if not welcoming, dissent.

Howards' lawsuit is similar to two others that are still wending their way through the courts. One is another suit in Colorado in which two people claim they were ejected from a Bush appearance in 2005 because their car sported an antiwar bumper sticker. The other is a suit in West Virginia in which a couple claims they were arrested at a Bush appearance in 2004 because they were wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.

One has to wonder whether the rights we thought were ours as Americans are becoming little more than feel-good slogans that disintegrate when put to the test. On Friday, Congress authorized legislation giving the president the power to designate Americans suspected of terrorist connections as "unlawful enemy combatants" who can be held indefinitely without charge.

Earlier this week, two Americans of Pakistani descent were allowed back into the country. They had been refused re-entry for five months apparently because they had a relative convicted of a terror-related crime. There were no charges, however, against them.

Free speech, due process and protections against warrantless spying are explicit grants of liberty to each of us. But they don't seem to hold the meaning they once did. We would tell you to complain about this to our leaders, but we wouldn't want you to get arrested.