This is the kind of Independence Day story that makes you wonder whether the White House keeps a paper shredder stationed by Dubya's Oval Office desk marked "First Amendment."
Two years ago, on the nation's birthday, the President visited Charleston, West Virginia, where he gave a speech. Amid the sea of Bush supporters at this holiday event stood a quiet, young married couple, Nicole and Jeff Rank, of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Nicole, 32, then worked for FEMA's Mid-Atlantic regional office, and Jeff, 30, was a marine biologist about to start his first year of law school. Both were wearing anti-Bush T-shirts. But, to their complete surprise, the Ranks were soon arrested by police acting on the orders of White House staff personnel. They never got to hear Bush's speech.
The ACLU is currently handling the Ranks' civil suit against the government for unlawful detainment. Just this week, the ACLU, after rebuffing the U.S. government's previous attempt to dismiss the suit, has filed an amended complaint naming the White House as a co-defendant while dropping the Secret Service.
"What is at stake here," says Chris Hanson, ACLU's lead attorney in the case, "is the prohibition of free speech by the White House. The Ranks had tickets to get into what was an official presidential visit on the Fourth of July to the Capitol grounds in Charleston. And they were excluded from the event once it became known that they were wearing T-shirts mildly critical of the president."
Here then, is Nicole and Jeff Rank's story -- in their own words. It is excerpted from my new book, Patriots Act:Voices of Dissent and the Risk of Speaking Out.
Jeff: The only other political event I ever went to in my life was listening to Vice President Al Gore speak in Galveston in the mid-'90s. I just stood in the back of the crowd. While Nicole and I obviously don't agree with Bush on a lot of issues, we thought that here's a great opportunity to see the President of the United States.
Nicole: This was my first political event. But we both wanted to stage a little protest of our own.
Jeff: You have to realize that neither of us had ever protested anything before. This was our first political protest. Ever. All we wanted to do was wear our anti-Bush T-shirts and quietly listen to him speak. His visit to Charleston wasn't a campaign stop, so it would be open to the public. I guess the reason we chose this particular form of protest was because whenever you'd watch television news coverage of Bush speaking at these events there would only be Bush supporters appearing in the background. We wanted to wear something identifying us as non-supporters.
Nicole: The commercials on television said that free event tickets were available to the public.
Jeff: When I went to pick up the tickets at the local high school, they never asked anything about party affiliation. Along with the tickets, you got a little piece of paper with some instructions. Number one was: come a couple of hours early to get through security so you are there when the president shows up. Number two was a list of things that you couldn't bring, and on that list were things like coolers, lawn chairs, umbrellas, and signs. But notably, there was nothing on the list that said anything about attire.
Nicole: Jeff went out to buy pro-Kerry or anti-Bush T-shirts, but he wasn't able to find anything on such short notice. So what he did instead was buy plain white T-shirts and magic markers at Target. The morning before the event, we made our homemade T-shirts. Both T-shirts had Bush's name on the front with the international "No" symbol -- the big circle with a line through it. The back of my T-shirt said: "Love America, Hate Bush." The back of Jeff's T-shirt said: "Regime Change Starts At Home." And then we had a couple of Kerry and anti-Bush buttons that we were also going to wear. And so, our attire for that day was basically shorts with those T-shirts. We also opted to wear a separate shirt over our T-shirts because we knew that most people going to the event were going to be Bush supporters and we didn't feel like getting heckled while waiting in line at the security checkpoint. So I wore a button-up denim shirt.
Jeff: I wore a Hawaiian shirt that I had bought at Steve and Barry's discount outlet in Charleston for $6.00.
Nicole: Getting through security didn't take quite as long as we had thought. Maybe an hour or so. They were security law enforcement officers and Secret Service people, or those who would appear to be Secret Service. You had to go through a metal detector.
Jeff: I had four little buttons in my wallet that set off the metal detector. Two small Kerry buttons and two anti-Bush buttons -- maybe an inch in diameter -- that had Bush's face on it with the international "No" symbol through it. One of the uniformed Secret Service officers definitely saw the buttons because he rifled through my wallet. But he didn't confiscate anything. I wasn't nervous. It was just like going through airport security.
Nicole: I wasn't nervous either. There was a lot of excitement going on at the State Capitol grounds; it was almost a festive sort of atmosphere. Bush was going to speak in front of the Capitol building itself. There's this big central garden area surrounded by buildings. It's a big complex. The crowd was standing in that open area. I'd say there were about twelve hundred people or more.
Jeff: By the time we got through the security and through the lines, it was 11:30 A.M., and Bush was not scheduled to speak until 1:00. The event was already in progress. Some of the local dignitaries got to say a couple of words at the podium. We finally got to where we would be standing, which was between the media stand and speaker's podium. All of the local television stations were there, plus members of the Associated Press and local newspapers. We then took off our outer shirts.
Nicole: We received a couple of strange looks when we first removed our outer shirts, but most people ignored us. One woman walked behind Jeff and said, "Don't you think that's tacky?" But we didn't respond. We heard a few other comments, but most people didn't think it was worth bothering us. Most people accepted the fact that we were being quiet -- just standing there, not doing anything.
Jeff: We stood there for ten, fifteen minutes. Then these two guys came up. They looked like young Republican volunteers. They were wearing polo shirts. They had little tags around their necks The guy in a blue shirt -- the other was in a red shirt -- said, "You have to either take those shirts off or leave." We were dumbfounded. We said, "No, why do you think that?" And he replied, "This is not a political event, so you have to take the shirts off." This was just really absurd. There were people standing all around us with pro-Bush things on. Bush hats, pins, shirts. You could buy pro-Bush paraphernalia right there at the event.
Nicole: They were even selling a set of Bush-Cheney playing cards.
Jeff: I told them, "Look all around you and regardless of whether or not you think it's a political event, I can wear any offensive shirt I want as long as it's not vulgar, right? I mean, this is what the First Amendment was made for?" And they kept replying that we could either take our shirts off or leave. Those were the only options they gave us. We each had disposable cameras, so Nicole took a picture of me showing them our tickets while explaining our position. And while we were talking to them, a woman in front of us turned around and said, "Hey, it's their right to wear whatever they want. They may be crazy, but it's their right." Her companions started supporting us. I was really astounded and encouraged. Eventually the two guys walked away. Nicole and I looked at each other, thinking that was easy. I said, "Hey, that's what happens when you stand up to authority."
Nicole: Another thing was that the two guys had never identified themselves. While they had tags around their shirts, they weren't readily visible.
Jeff: We continued standing there. Nothing happened. Then the national anthem played. That's really the only thing we did -- sing the national anthem -- as far as raising our voices. Otherwise, we only spoke quietly to each other. We didn't talk to anybody else. Then about two or three cops showed up.
Nicole: The first thing the cops said, "Did two gentlemen ask you to remove your shirts or demand you leave?" And we said, "Yes, they did." The cops wanted to know why we weren't complying. We used the same logic we'd given the first two guys: We weren't breaking any laws; we hadn't done anything wrong; we were complying with all of the rules that had been set aside for this particular event; we weren't causing any harm; we weren't booing; we were simply standing there wearing our special T-shirts.
Jeff: I told the cops, "Look, you have seen the sum total of our protest. We're not going to yell, we're not going to heckle, and we're not going to do anything crazy. We're just going to stand here, and you guys are welcome to stand here with us if you feel that we pose a danger or if you're worried about our safety." One of their lines had been, "We are worried about your safety." I added, "If you guys either stand here or leave us alone or whatever, this is going to be the best-kept secret in Charleston, right?" Because they were now threatening to call over the arrest team. That was the term they kept using. Nicole and I were both astounded that it was getting to this level. I finally said, "You guys do what you have to do. We're going to stand here and do what we know that we are allowed to do." And so they called over the arrest team.
Nicole: The arrest team consisted of various members of different state law-enforcement agencies. There were probably eight police officers in our immediate vicinity. While there were no uniformed Secret Service men, we noticed a couple of men standing in the background who were watching. They were dressed in the typical men-in-black sort of outfits. It wasn't definitive that they were Secret Service, but they certainly looked like Secret Service. They did not approach us directly. This was all handled with the state law-enforcement officials. And then, interestingly enough, some of the people around us started to heckle us once they saw all these police gathered around us. They gained courage all of a sudden. The hecklers even included some of the people who had been previously supportive or who had left us alone. The police officers now said that they needed to protect us from the hecklers. Well, we tried to point out that the people who had started heckling us hadn't been bothering us until they showed up. The officers then attempted to lead us out voluntarily by taking us by our arms and getting us to walk out. That was their last-ditch attempt at not actually arresting us. They wanted us to voluntarily walk out. But Jeff and I had both decided that we were not going to leave voluntarily, though we certainly were not going to resist arrest. We told the police officers, "If you feel you need to arrest us, go ahead, but we are not leaving voluntarily." At that point, Jeff and I sat down on the ground.
Jeff: After we sat down, they said, "Put your hands behind your backs." We did. They placed handcuffs around our wrists.
Nicole: Throughout this process, the police were pretty friendly to us. They were standing around, smiling. We didn't have any problems except for one particular cop who got in my face when I asked him if I could take a photograph of my husband being handcuffed. He got aggressive and started screaming at me, saying that I was causing trouble.
Jeff: They led us out in our handcuffs. We didn't make them carry us. There were some false news reports that said we had kicked and resisted and spit. That was simply untrue. The officers had no choice but to lead us out directly in front of the media stand. By then, the cameras were already trained on us. Reporters started following us. Then large numbers of the crowd began chanting against us. I don't remember what they were saying. What I do remember was "America the Beautiful"was playing on the loudspeakers while we were being walked out in handcuffs. If you saw it in a movie, you'd go, "Ah, this isn't real." It was one of those very surreal moments.
Nicole: There are news photos of us being walked out and it looks like we have smirks or smug looks on our faces, but it was more an incredulous expression, "Is this really happening?"
Jeff: Some of the reporters, including the local AP reporter, started asking us questions. The police didn't say anything about this, but a couple of golf-shirted young-Republican types started restricting media access to us. They actually pushed the reporters back and prevented them from talking to us any further, which I thought was phenomenal. I couldn't believe that the reporters would stand for that business.
Nicole: We were taken to another building on the Capitol grounds that wasn't in use at the time. We waited in this empty lobby to be turned over to the custody of the city police who came in a prisoner transport van. They wedged Jeff and me inside our own cages in the van. There was mesh all around us. We were still handcuffed so we had to sit on our hands. The van was very hot. I could barely see Jeff through the cage mesh.
Jeff: My mind was just kind of spinning. I was in a tailspin. I couldn't believe that it had gotten this far.
Nicole: We were taken to the basement of this police station. Its detention area basically consisted of two little caged cells with benches inside. You could probably cram five people into each one.
Jeff: There were a bunch of people already in each cage. They were all male.
Nicole: All men! And they were all drunk!
Jeff: They moved all the men into my cage and put Nicole in her own cage. One guy was telling me why he was there. He had been drinking down at the boat ramp. I think he said he was hunting ducks with a BB gun and had a machete with him, and so the police brought him in. Nicole and I sat there and waited. Meanwhile, the police were processing our paperwork. They called us out, and they did our fingerprints and took our mug shots. They were processing us through fairly quickly. The city charged us with the municipal offense of trespassing, which is hard to imagine because we were on state property with our tickets. The really amazing thing is that somehow if we had removed our shirts, then we wouldn't have been trespassing.
Nicole: So, our shirts were trespassing, apparently. Not us! The idea behind our arrest was to get us away from the event. That was their only goal; whether it was legal or not, they wanted us gone from their property.
Jeff: It doesn't matter if the charge sticks. It doesn't matter if you're charged with jaywalking or littering or trespassing -- just get them off the property right now. It'll take two hours to be processed through the system, and that'll be enough time for Bush to give his speech and get out of town. And that's exactly what happened. We were in custody for probably two and a half hours. We didn't have to post a bond. Because it was a Sunday, they said that there was no magistrate available. But I think it was pretty clear to them that we weren't a big danger to society. And so they said, "We're going to release you on your own personal recognizance and give you these tickets for trespassing. These were pink tickets. It's the same ticket they give for offenses like speeding; instead of a check in a box for "speeding," there was a check by "trespassing."
Nicole: After they let us out of the downtown police station, we started walking back to our hotel. It was about five or six blocks away. We were in a bit of a daze. We were still wearing our anti-Bush T-shirts.
Jeff: We started receiving strange looks, first of all, not just for our shirts, but also because Bush's speech had been televised. Apparently, we had made the news -- just a little blip on the news -- saying that people had been removed from the event. People were pointing at us, saying, "Hi, you're the people who got taken out of the Bush rally!"
Nicole: We had lunch in the hotel restaurant. The television was replaying Bush's speech. It was ironic to hear him talk about the Fourth of July and what it means for freedom.
Jeff: We were choking on our hamburgers, listening to him talk about freedom of expression. He even used that very term. It was another pivotal moment for me.
Nicole: The rest of the day was quiet. On Monday, I went into work at the FEMA field office, but since it was a federal holiday, most people weren't there. On the following day, I got called out of a meeting by our field officer's head secretary. She asked me to come in for a conference with her boss. But he never showed up. He refused to see me, and so I ended up in a conference room with a FEMA legal counsel and the head of our administration department who told me that because of my actions, I had jeopardized FEMA's mission in West Virginia and that they were asking me to leave my assignment. That was crazy. I pointed out, "How many people are going to turn down free checks from the federal government just because of something that I did?" I was not fired at that time -- my job was contract work -- but they released me with no promise of a future assignment. Several days later, my immediate supervisor took away my FEMA badge.
Jeff: After FEMA kicked us out of the Embassy Hotel, we didn't have anywhere to go. We had kept a bunch of stuff in storage in Philadelphia where the FEMA regional office was, so we figured that we'd go back to Philly, get the stuff, and then head back down to Texas. Well, as we left Philly, we got as far as Roanoke, Virginia, where we stopped off at a Motel 6. I happened to read the back of the trespassing ticket to find out what we needed to do. It said that if you're not charged with one of the following things -- and they listed things like domestic violence and driving while intoxicated -- then you can just call in and pay your fine over the phone and everything's fine. So I called the clerk at the city office and she asked, "Well, what are you charged with?" I said, "Trespassing." And she said, "Okay, what's your name, hon?" I said, "Jeff Rank." And she said, "Oh, no, you have to come in." I thought, "Oh, shit! Here we go again with West Virginia justice." So instead of heading back to Texas, we returned to Charleston to appear for our court date.
Nicole: But first we called the American Civil Liberties Union. We decided that if they're going to treat us this way, we needed some legal help. This was on a Friday afternoon. I telephoned the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU and spoke to a woman by the name of Terry Barr, who is the attorney for that chapter. Before I mentioned my name, she explained their procedure in taking on a new case. Basically you have to submit a request in writing and then they review it with their board of directors. This process can take a couple of weeks. But she said, "Tell me your story, and I'll see what we can do." And as soon as I mentioned my name and President Bush and Fourth of July, she said, "Oh, we've been trying to find you!" She immediately contacted the board members who were all at a conference in California, and by the following Monday, we had an agreement that they would represent us, which meant that we now had an ACLU cooperating attorney who was a local and knew the judges in Charleston.
Jeff: Once we got to Charleston, we spoke with a lawyer named Harvey Peyton. He tried to put us at ease. He's a great guy. Probably in his early fifties. Kind of a new-fashioned country lawyer. He is very much a man of West Virginia. His family goes back there a couple of generations. He is very much involved in the community. He collects modern art. There's a progressive side to him.
Nicole: When we showed up for our court date on July 15th, there were two or three reporters outside, and five more inside.
Jeff: And that's just the TV people. There were news and radio people. There were supporters as well. The mayor even showed up. A few days earlier, the city council had passed a resolution officially apologizing to us.
Nicole: The entire court proceeding lasted about three minutes. They really wanted to get us out of the way. We were causing quite a commotion. The judge called up Jeff first, spoke with him briefly, and then he called me up and asked me if I understood why I was here and what the charges were. We both answered yes. Then the city attorney said to the judge that they were dropping all charges against us. The judge said, "Okay, you're free to go." And that was about it.
Jeff: You can speculate about the real reasons that the charges were dropped, but the legal reason they gave was that they had improperly charged us with a municipal offense on state property. Basically, they didn't have jurisdiction there. We had been on state grounds; there was no contesting that, but we were being tried for a municipal offense. The legal term they used was "dismissed without prejudice," which meant that we could actually be tried again in state court in a different jurisdiction.
Nicole: Assuming the state was crazy enough to decide to try us again. They could have convicted us of trespassing. We could have been sent to jail for six months, a year. Once we left the courthouse with TV cameras in our face, the media circus really started. We had done some interviews before, but we were a little choosy simply because we didn't know how our case was going to go. So it really picked up afterward, once we were cleared of all charges.
Jeff: Nina Totenberg did a piece on us on NPR. There was CNN, ABC Nightline, NBC, Al Franken on Air America Radio. Franken pointed out something: "You know, what if Nicole had taken her shirt off like those two guys had asked, then how would they have really reacted?" Nicole and I also considered our next move. We wanted to go ahead and pursue a civil suit against the government. But we didn't have the means or money to do it on our own. Fortunately, the ACLU did agree to represent us. Harvey was still on the legal team, but they brought in some attorneys from New York and Washington, D.C. There was a whole team of attorneys working on our brief. It was filed on September 15, 2004. We held a little press conference on the Capitol steps in Charleston. We handed out a press release naming as defendants the White House Office of Presidential Events and the head of the Secret Service. Then we named a couple of John Does who were the young Republican aides and state law enforcement officials.
Nicole: Once the criminal charges had been dropped, FEMA sent me what it calls a "counseling letter." It was signed by the regional director. It basically said, "Shame on you. You should have known better. We don't behave that way, but if you're good, you can come back to work for us." My return was tainted by that letter. But assignments gradually started trickling back in. Yet nothing that Jeff and I did was illegal. We hadn't done anything wrong from the beginning. I don't regret anything that we did. I wouldn't go out and look for this kind of trouble -- but by the same token, what we did was exercise our right to speak out and participate in the democratic process. I would do it again in an instant.
Jeff: I'd also do it again in a heartbeat. It takes a lot of guts to stand up, especially when there's a mob mentality about. Post-9/11, a lot of people got caught up behind the flags they were waving and didn't stop to think about what was really going on and what those flags really stood for. They didn't stop to think for themselves. And for the vast majority of us, that's pretty easy to do. If your rent's paid, if you're picking up the kids from soccer practice at five o'clock, then get your thirty minutes of news from Fox, everything seems okay. Not to toot our horns, it was not easy what we went through. At each step of the process -- when we decided to stand up to the people at the event or when we decided to file the civil suit -- we adopted this approach: "I don't really care what other people are going to say, but I know that this is what is right and I know that in the long run, this is what is important." And that was true with Nicole's job. It certainly has cost us, both on personal and financial levels. Yet there's a reluctance for people to stand up and do those things. And I don't think that's unique to our time in history. But unless people exercise their constitutional rights, those rights will erode.
Nicole: There's a certain amount of inertia that if you don't have the momentum to act, why should you act? Even with us. We had initially considered, "Let's just pay the fine and be done with it. Let's move on with our lives." But we recognized that there was something greater at stake than just paying the hundred-dollar fine.
Jeff: In terms of the effect on our families, it took a little time to heal those wounds. I wouldn't call it a rift. There are bigger issues in our families than this, but it didn't contribute to family harmony. It caused a lot of sore feelings around Thanksgiving, especially right after the presidential election. That's for sure.
Nicole: Some family members took exception to the word "hate" on my T-shirt because they felt that's too strong a word. But "Love America, Don't Really Like Bush" doesn't really sound as strong. We also had family members comment, "Well, you should have expected that kind of treatment in West Virginia, and so we're not surprised." My attitude is that's all the more reason to stand up for what you believe in. I'm not sure what America they live in, but the America I live in, you're supposed to be able to do that.
Jeff: There has been a lot of good, too. Before the criminal trial, people would call the ACLU and offer their places for us to stay so we didn't have to pay for motels. They sent checks and supportive letters.
Nicole: While I was at the Charleston ACLU office, a woman came in one day and asked to see me. She was in her sixties. She was probably retired. She had tears in her eyes. She smiled at me and said, "Thank you so much for what you're doing. I want you to know there are people out there who appreciate you and are very proud of you." She hugged me and then handed me an envelope with some money. I asked what her name was, and she said, "No, my name's not important. Just know that people care about you." She then walked out of the office.