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Chris Weigant

Chris Weigant

Posted: August 17, 2007 07:18 PM

Exclusive Interview With ACLU Lawyer In Bush Rally Free Speech Case


The following is an interview with Jonathan Miller, who is a William J. Brennan Fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Mr. Miller is also an ACLU lawyer who was involved with the case of Jeff and Nicole Rank, who were arrested for trespassing while wearing anti-Bush shirts at a 2004 West Virginia event with an appearance by President Bush. The White House and the Justice Department just settled this case yesterday, by paying the Ranks $80,000.

The circumstances surrounding the Ranks' case are best detailed by a story in a local paper, the Charleston Gazette. From their story:

The federal government has agreed to pay $80,000 to a Texas couple arrested for wearing anti-President Bush T-shirts at a 2004 event with the president in Charleston.

Jeff and Nicole Rank went to Bush's Fourth of July speech at the state Capitol wearing homemade T-shirts with a red circle with a bar through it over the word "Bush."

On the back, hers read "Love America, Hate Bush" and his read "Regime Change Starts At Home."

When the couple refused to cover up their shirts, they were arrested and charged with trespassing. Those charges were later dropped by the city of Charleston, and city officials later apologized.

The American Civil Liberties Union subsequently filed a lawsuit on the Ranks' behalf in federal court in Charleston, alleging that the Ranks' First Amendment right to free political speech had been violated.

"This settlement is a real victory not only for our clients but for the First Amendment," state ACLU Director Andrew Schneider said in a news release Thursday.

There are a number of other cases pending which also deal with dissenting opinions being expressed at presidential appearances, and the fact that the Bush Administration has settled one of these for $80,000 is certainly good news for these cases, and for the First Amendment. I have written before about the ACLU's evidence in one of these cases, a heavily-redacted copy of the "Presidential Advance Manual," which shows a clear White House policy of unconstitutional disdain for such opposing viewpoints.

The most well-known of these cases stems from an event in Denver, where three people were prevented from attending an event because of the bumperstickers they had on their car. This case became known as the case of the "Denver 3" (although there are currently only two people listed in the case, Alex Young and Leslie Weise). Their case against Gregory Jenkins, former Director of the White House Office of Presidential Advance, is still pending in the District of Columbia. Details on these cases can be found at the ACLU's website.

The following is the transcript of a telephone interview with Mr. Miller.

First, let me offer congratulations on the news of the $80,000 settlement.
Thank you.

Was Ms. Rank actually fired from FEMA? What does "temporarily suspended" mean?
She was put on forced leave while the arrest and trespassing charge was pending. She was later reinstated. I don't know the specifics, but the leave was temporary, to the best of my knowledge.

Is there any legal action pending against FEMA for this disciplinary action?
No, there is not.

The ACLU, on their website, has details about a case where you are suing Gregory Jenkins, Director of the White House Office of Presidential Advance, pertaining to the Presidential Advance Manual. Was this the same case?
The Ranks had claims in two different cases. The one in West Virginia was ongoing for the past three years, and then the Greg Jenkins case was filed in the DC district court in July of this year. The judge ruled that the case against Jenkins was in a different jurisdiction from the West Virginia case, so it was filed in the District of Columbia. The Ranks were part of the Jenkins suit, which also involved others, but the Ranks' claims in both of these cases are covered by the settlement.

Which leads me to my next question -- How will this affect the case of Alex Young and Leslie Weise (part of the so-called "Denver 3")?
Young and Weise were also part of the Jenkins case, and this is still ongoing. At the least, the Ranks settlement demonstrates to us that the Justice Department is concerned about the Jenkins case. Different people, different cases -- but both incidents occurred pursuant to the same White House policy. I think that the settlement of the West Virginia case demonstrates that the White House and the Department of Justice are concerned about the Jenkins case. Evidentiary rules preclude the facts of the Ranks' settlement affecting the Jenkins case in DC, but the Ranks' testimony may ultimately become part of the Jenkins case in an attempt to show that this was an official administration policy.

Will this affect any other pending ACLU cases which deal with presidential appearances?
The only other case I am aware of is in Oregon, but that case deals with Secret Service policy, so it may not be pertinent.

What is your reaction to the White House's Blair Jones claiming that: "The parties understand that this settlement is a compromise of disputed claims to avoid the expenses and risks of litigation and is not an admission of fault, liability, or wrongful conduct."
To us, it's pretty generic language with such a settlement. But we think the size of the settlement, and the fact that it came so close to the August 14th trial date, indicate serious concerns on the part of the Justice Department and the White House about their ability to successfully prosecute these cases before a jury.

Why would the Justice Department, which (after all) is financed by tax dollars, care about the "expenses" of litigation? Do you think they were more concerned with the "risks" of losing the case in court?
Yes, we believe that they were concerned about losing this case. In fact, previous administrations have tried similar actions to squelch dissenting viewpoints from presidential events, and the courts have concluded that these efforts are clear violations of the First Amendment.

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com