The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and cooperating Attorney Lewis Pitts filed an appeal brief on April 12, 2004, in the case of United States v. Brett Bursey, charging that the Secret Service violated its own regulations in order to keep protesters far removed from the president and the press. CCR has been involved in an increasing number of cases where protestors are wrongly arrested, where they are questioned by police about their political affiliations, and where they are kept in pens in so-called free-speech zones. Attorneys at CCR find this to be a disturbing trend and are working with groups planning protests during the Republican convention to make sure their constitutional rights are upheld.
Mr. Bursey, a long time political activist in South Carolina, was convicted in January of violating a Secret Service restricted zone when he was peaceably protesting against President Bush at a public airport in Columbia, South Carolina. Bursey was originally charged with trespassing until the state law enforcement officials realized that the airport was public property. Bursey had been convicted of trespassing at that same airport while protesting against the policies of President Nixon some thirty years ago. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled then that the airport was public property and people cannot be charged with trespassing on public property.
After the State of South Carolina dropped charges against Bursey, the United States Attorney charged him under the federal statute. Although some 6,000 people waving pro-Bush signs were allowed into the so-called restricted zone, only Bursey and several other protesters were ordered to leave.
According to CCR Legal Director Jeffrey Fogel, “the problem of selective and discriminatory enforcement of these so-called restricted zones has become prevalent at protests against the President.” Fogel noted that, “Although Congress promised that it would still be possible to assemble peaceably wherever the visible symbol of the Government is located, the Secret Service has required protesters to go to ‘designated demonstration areas’ far from the object of their protest – in violation of the First Amendment – or risk arrest. Allowing pro-Bush demonstrators to be close to the President while requiring those who oppose his policies to be far removed is the worst kind of viewpoint discrimination and has been repeatedly condemned by the Supreme Court.”
The Secret Service has isolated the President and the media covering him from those who oppose his policies. “This may be appropriate in an authoritarian regime,” charged Fogel, “but it is inconsistent with a democracy.”