John Leo
If you are worried about the state of free speech in America, consider the case of longtime protester Brett Bursey. Last October, Bursey, carrying an anti-war sign, was arrested at Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina during a visit by President Bush. He was on public property at the time, but was charged with trespassing because he was outside the zone established for demonstrators that day. The zone was on the edge of a highway, a half-mile away from the president, where neither Bush nor the media were likely to notice.

The Bursey case contains other oddities. Bursey charges viewpoint discrimination -- he says an airport policeman specifically told him his sign ("No war for oil") was a problem for authorities. Local charges were dropped, but Bursey faces federal charges under a rarely used statute that allows the Secret Service to restrict access to areas where the president is visiting. The U.S. Attorney's office says the sign and Bursey's protest were not issues: "The problem was where he was doing it."

Federal charges against out-of-place but peaceful protesters are unusual, particularly when the charges carry maximum penalties that run to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Perhaps when the case comes to trial we will learn more, including why the feds bothered to file charges five months after a minor and apparently harmless act of defiance.

Serious discussion about the rights of protesters is out of fashion right now, partly because the media prefers to focus on the low-level complaints of anti-war celebrities. But there are several troubling trends, among them what seems to be a policy of more arrests and quicker arrests, the practice of banishing protesters to faraway sites, and a tactic that Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School calls trap-and-arrest.

Turley thinks the District of Columbia police deliberately encircled large numbers of protesters for mass arrests at last September's World Bank-International Monetary Fund demonstration in Washington. The goal, he thinks, was to break the protest by removing as many people as possible from the streets without giving them a chance to disperse.

Reporters and bystanders were hauled into custody. Turley said a group of protesters on bicycles, pedaling legally through the area, were guided by police into Pershing Park, penned in there and then arrested along with everyone else. Police in cities around the country, Turley thinks, are looking for a convenient way to control protests, and they all saw what happened in D.C.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.