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Anti-Bush protesters' rights violated, lawsuit claims

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit yesterday accusing the Secret Service of violating the constitutional rights of protesters at events featuring President Bush and other senior administration officials.

The suit contends that protesters have been forced into designated "free-speech zones" far from television cameras and the national news media, sometimes behind fences or other barriers. Meanwhile, people holding signs sympathetic to the administration and other members of the public are allowed much closer.

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"The Secret Service is trampling on free-speech rights of those who dissent from them," said Stephen Presser, legal director of the ACLU's Pennsylvania office.

As a consequence, Americans do not get to hear or see those who oppose the president, Presser said during a news conference.

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Such incidents have become significantly more common in the past two years, he said, leading the ACLU to charge the administration with a pattern of discrimination.

The suit was filed on behalf of several groups, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, also known as ACORN, and the National Organization for Women.

Secret Service spokesman John Gill said the agency does not comment on pending litigation but in a written statement said that "we have a long-standing policy of recognizing the constitutionally protected right of the public to demonstrate and voice their views to their elected officials."

At the news conference, Bill Neel, a 66-year-old retired steelworker from Butler, Pa., said he was handcuffed and arrested for refusing to move to a free-speech zone behind a fence during an appearance by President Bush last year in Neville Island, Pa.

Neel was carrying a hand-made sign protesting Bush's economic policies. Bush supporters and those without signs were allowed much closer to the rally, outside "the cage," he said. "Why weren't we treated the same?" he asked. "I thought the United States was a free-speech zone."

At an airport in Columbia, S.C., Brett Bursey was arrested for refusing to move to a "protest zone" before President Bush's arrival for an event. Eleven members of Congress, including John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have asked the Justice Department to drop the charges against Bursey.


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