"We weren't doing anything wrong"

by Tara Tuckwiller
Reprinted with permission from the Charleston Gazette

A husband and wife who wore anti-Bush T-shirts to the president’s Fourth of July appearance aren’t going down without a fight: They will be represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union as they contest the trespassing charges against them Thursday morning in Charleston Municipal Court.

Police took Nicole and Jeff Rank away in handcuffs from the event, which was billed as a presidential appearance, not a campaign rally. They were wearing T-shirts that read, "Love America, Hate Bush."

Spectators who wore pro-Bush T-shirts and Bush-Cheney campaign buttons were allowed to stay.

"We weren’t doing anything wrong," said Jeff Rank. The couple, who said they had tickets just like everybody else, said they simply stood around the Capitol steps with the rest of the spectators.

"We sang the national anthem," Rank said.

The Ranks hardly fit the image of rabble-rousers. Jeff Rank, 29, has a master’s degree in oceanography. Nicole Rank, 30, has degrees in biological science and marine biology. They have been married for seven years.

Nicole Rank arrived in Charleston soon after the Memorial Day floods. She was working as deputy environmental liaison officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, making sure cities and counties obeyed federal environmental laws as they repaired roads and bridges.

After police arrested the Ranks, fingerprinted them and took their mug shots, FEMA told Nicole Rank she was no longer needed in West Virginia.

"I have not been fired per se," she said. "But I was released from this job. And when they release you from a job, you no longer get paid."

The Ranks started to go home to Corpus Christi, Texas, but they only got as far as Roanoke, Va., when it occurred to them that they might not be able to contest their arrest if they weren’t in Charleston on their court date. A phone call confirmed their suspicions. So they turned around.

"We’ve been living in motels ever since," said Jeff Rank, who spent Tuesday evening in his motel room with his wife, their cocker spaniel Feinman, and their marmalade cat Rowr.

"It’s extremely difficult [financially]. We can only afford to do this for so long."

But they had to stay and fight the charges, he said, "because we didn’t think we were guilty."

Since Bush took office in early 2001, people have been banned from displaying anti-Bush messages at dozens of Bush appearances across the country. In September, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the Secret Service, seeking an injunction against the Bush administration for segregating protesters at his public appearances.

The Secret Service agreed that such censorship was wrong, said Witold Walczak, one of the lawyers that filed the lawsuit.

"They had an internal memo dated September 2002, saying they couldn’t treat protesters differently or worse" than anyone else at a presidential appearance, Walczak said. "The judge said any agent responsible for doing so could be held liable for damages."

The Secret Service had been telling local police to sequester anyone displaying an anti-administration message, usually in areas completely out of sight and earshot of Bush. Because the Secret Service agreed with the ACLU that it shouldn’t be doing that, the judge dismissed the case.

"Prior to filing our suit in September, we’d get a couple of confirmed ‘protest zone’ complaints every month," Walczak said. "After we filed, there were practically none. We had two documented incidents between September and March: one in Little Rock, Ark., and one in Knoxville, Tenn."

But now, lawyers like Walczak are carefully monitoring cases like the Ranks’ — and two similar incidents recently in Pennsylvania.

"We’re trying to assess what is going on at these appearances ... whether these ‘protest zones’ are resuming," he said.

"We are continuing to monitor all campaign events by both Republican and Democratic candidates. We’re prepared to go back into court if we see discrimination occurring."

Because Bush’s Fourth of July stop in Charleston was billed as an official presidential visit, not a campaign rally, "That makes it an even more glaring violation of the First Amendment," said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia.

"It’s an Orwellian way to keep speech out of sight of those the speech is intended to critique ... We want to nip this in the bud before it becomes a habit of future administrations."

A Bush spokesman did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the necessity of the "free speech zone."

Charleston Gazette staff writer Tara Tuckwiller may be contacted at tara@wvgazette.com.