WASHINGTON—The ejection of two women from the U.S. Capitol for wearing message T-shirts during President Bush's State of the Union speech last week was the latest incident in a growing trend of stifling dissent in politics.
Capitol Police later apologized for ejecting the women from the House of Representatives gallery—after one of them, the wife of a congressman, complained bitterly, as did her husband. The police acknowledged that they'd acted overzealously.
But their actions weren't atypical in today's overheated political climate. Protesters outside political conventions are herded behind razor wire far from the action, citizens wearing a rival candidate's stickers are forcefully ejected from presidential campaign rallies on public property, and those who heckle the president or broadcast issue ads within 60 days of an election can be prosecuted.
The tension between the Capitol Police and the women is symbolic of the eternal conflict between those who seek to silence dissent and those who advocate free speech.
"This is the latest manifestation of the desire by those in power to minimize criticism and marginalize critics," said Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
This is dissent via T-shirts.
Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan wore one to Tuesday's State of the Union speech. It proclaimed "2245 Dead. How many more?" Police charged her with a misdemeanor for unlawful disruptive conduct in the Capitol.
Later, police ejected Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. Young, R-Fla., for wearing a shirt that said "Support the Troops—Defending Our Freedom."
It wasn't the first time that police have ejected Capitol visitors who wore message T-shirts —and the practice isn't limited to the Capitol.
In Denver last year, three people were thrown out of a Bush town-hall meeting on Social Security after they arrived in a car sporting a bumper sticker that proclaimed: "No more blood for oil" and wore T-shirts under their other clothes that said "Stop the Lies."
Evicting people who oppose the president, even if they don't say a word, was a carryover from Bush's 2004 presidential campaign.
In Charleston, W. Va., for example, a couple was arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts to a Bush campaign rally in the state capitol building on the Fourth of July. Police said they acted under orders from federal officials. The charges were later dropped and the mayor apologized.
In Saginaw, Mich., Bush campaign workers ejected a woman for wearing a pro-choice T-shirt. The campaign said at the time that it had to throw out people who might make a scene.
In 2004, protesters at both national party conventions were herded into areas far away from delegates, officials and the news media. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, protesters were kept in enclosed areas surrounded by fences topped with razor wire and watched by armed police.
It's a crime, punishable by up to six months in prison, to "disrupt" an event guarded by the Secret Service, which includes presidential rallies. (A proposed extension of the Patriot Act now being negotiated in Congress would broaden such prohibitions to other vaguely defined national events.)
Does a T-shirt "disrupt" an event? To the political operatives who ejected people on the basis of their shirts—or ordered them arrested—a shirt can be disruptive.
But no one's been convicted yet, and T-shirt prosecutions likely would be challenged as an affront to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that it wasn't illegal to wear an obscene anti-Vietnam war jacket in a California courthouse, despite a state law prohibiting such messages because they might incite violence.
"The state may not, consistently with the First and 14th amendments, make the simple public display of this four-letter expletive a criminal offense," the court said.
The campaign against dissent predates the recent T-shirt confrontations.
A 2002 campaign-finance reform designed to regulate the flow of money into politics prohibited broadcasts of issue ads within 60 days of elections.
"We were not allowed to take out radio ads," said the ACLU's Strossen. "We wanted to do ads calling on both party candidates to oppose the Patriot Act. That is now a crime. If we had done that, I would have faced a five-year prison term."
The Supreme Court recently ordered a three-judge panel to re-examine the prohibition, which could lead to lifting the ban, but not until after the 2006 elections.
Silencing dissent isn't unique to the national government. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once ordered city buses to remove an ad for The New Yorker magazine that made fun of him.
Nor is it limited to one political party, noted Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Va. Both major parties limit speech at their national conventions, inside and out, he said.
In 1992, for example, the Democrats refused to allow an abortion opponent, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, to speak from the podium.
This trend has a chilling effect on those who disagree with people in power, analysts say.
``The long-term consequence is a higher degree of self-censorship,'' O'Neil said. ``Society is the poorer when deprived of the marketplace of ideas.''
For more on the ACLU, go to www.aclu.org
For more on the Thomas Jefferson Center, go to www.tjcenter.org
HOW POLITICIANS USED TO DEAL WITH DISSENT
Politicians used to respond to hecklers with wit or anger.
In his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy was often met by people who shouted, "We want Nixon." Kennedy responded, "I don't think you're going to get him."
In 1964, Barry Goldwater was accosted by a heckler who shouted, "You god---- fascist bastard." Goldwater shot back, "If you call me a bastard again, I'll meet you outside." That won over the previously hostile audience at Rutgers University, recalled writer William Safire.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan was surprised by the affection he received on college campuses. After one visit to Ohio State, he wrote in his diary, "The O.S.U. students were on fire; another small heckler group only added to the fun."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map