Three Denver residents yesterday charged that they were forcibly removed from one of President Bush's town meetings on Social Security because they displayed a bumper sticker on their car condemning the administration's Middle East policies.
The three, all self-described progressives who oppose Bush's Social Security plan, said an unidentified official at an event in Denver last week forced them to leave before the president started to speak, even though they had done nothing disruptive, said their attorney, Dan Recht.
Initially, the three believed Secret Service agents had grabbed them and ushered them out of the auditorium, Recht said. But he said that Lon Garner, the Secret Service agent in charge of the Denver office, told them the service investigated the matter and found it was a "Republican staffer" who removed them because they had a "No More Blood for Oil" bumper sticker on their car.
Garner said yesterday that he was told by headquarters not to comment on the matter, and referred calls to Washington.
Jim Mackin, a spokesman for the Secret Service here, said he could not discuss the allegations that a Republican staff member was involved. "We will continue to look into it," he said. Mackin said a preliminary inquiry found that the Secret Service was not involved in the incident, which was first reported by the Associated Press.
Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, said it was a volunteer who asked them to leave "out of concern they might try to disrupt the event." He said the White House welcomes a variety of voices into events but discourages people from coming to heckle the president or disrupt town hall forums. "If someone is coming to try to disrupt it, then obviously that person would be asked to leave," he said. "There is plenty of opportunity outside of the event to express their views."
This is not the first time people have complained about heavy-handed monitoring of who can attend -- and speak at -- Bush's events promoting his Social Security plan. A newspaper in Fargo, N.D., reported that when Bush came to the city on Feb. 3, more than 40 residents were barred from attending the event.
The president has held Social Security rallies in more than a dozen states this year. The crowds are closely monitored for possible disruptions, and protesters are quickly escorted away.
Protesters often stand out because the crowds are packed with Bush supporters, who have been invited by a local GOP House member or organization. Those onstage at most of the town hall meetings are carefully screened people from the area who agree with the president's Social Security proposal. The participants typically rehearse what they will say with members of the president's advance team and rarely, if ever, say anything critical about his plan for private accounts.
In this case, Alex Young, 25; Karen Bauer, 38; and Leslie Weise, 39, said they were forced out even though they said nothing and did not sport T-shirts or signs criticizing the president or his policies. Young told the Associated Press that the three wore T-shirts under their business attire that read "Stop the Lies" and had discussed exposing them during Bush's visit, but decided not to. Recht, who is representing the three pro bono, said his clients consider themselves progressives.
The three were invited to the event by Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.). Jordan Stoick, spokesman for Beauprez, said the congressman's office distributed the tickets at the behest of the White House to constituents, including many Democrats. He said Beauprez is "definitely" concerned about the charges but is declining to comment on whether he believes them to be true. "He strongly supports free speech," Stoick said.
As described by Recht, a man in a blue suit told the three they had to leave and "in a physical, forcible way" escorted them out, refusing to explain why. Mackin said local law enforcement is in charge of policing civil disobedience at such events, although the Bush advance team is often seen asking disruptive people to leave.
"They believe their constitutional rights were violated, as do I, and that's the stuff lawsuits are made of," Recht said. "When you are punished by not being allowed to listen to your president speak because of speech you have on your bumper sticker, that is a classic First Amendment issue." Recht said he has not decided whether to file a lawsuit.