As a phalanx of motorcycles sped by on Old Philadelphia Pike in Lancaster County, Pa., in July, Tristan Egolf and six compatriots stripped to their skivvies and piled on top of one another in a pyramid, mimicking the infamous photograph taken at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
But a minute after their bit of street theater had begun -- and long before a motorcade carrying President Bush had arrived -- police moved in and arrested six of the protesters on disorderly-conduct charges. The seventh man got away.
This month, Lancaster County's Republican district attorney dropped charges against the "Smoketown Six" -- named for the Amish country town that hosted Bush that day -- declaring that their "symbolic conduct" was protected by the First Amendment.
"They denied us our chance at expression," said Egolf, 32, a twice-published novelist who lives in East Lampeter Township, Pa. "That seems to be what they're doing these days: They don't agree with your opinion, so they haul you off and drop the charges later."
As Bush has traveled the United States during this political campaign, the Secret Service and local police have often handled public protest by quickly arresting or removing demonstrators, free-speech advocates say. In addition, access to Bush's events has been unusually tightly controlled and people who do not support Bush's reelection have been removed.
Although it's impossible to precisely measure the tactics in comparison with previous campaigns, civil liberties advocates and other experts say the treatment of dissenters is harsher this year. Several dozen protest-related arrests have been reported in recent months, in addition to the 1,800 made outside the Republican National Convention in New York, and the American Civil Liberties Union says that scores of other people have been evicted or denied entry to Bush campaign events.
"Every president wants to suppress speech at one point or another," said Christopher Hansen, an ACLU lawyer who tracks arrests and removals. "That said, the incidents seem to be more numerous this time around."
Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College who studies police behavior at political protests, argues that the United States has not seen such tactics during protests since the Vietnam War era.
"This seems to be on a new level from what we've seen from past administrations," Vitale said. "It's clear that some of these security zones are not based on legitimate security concerns. They are based on the idea of the president not seeing someone who disagrees with him, which basically undermines the whole idea of the First Amendment."
Tickets to Bush events, distributed by the Republican Party, go only to those who volunteer or donate to the party or, in some cases, sign an endorsement of the GOP ticket and provide names and addresses. Party workers police the crowds for signs of Kerry supporters, who are frequently evicted.
Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said the tickets are distributed by precinct leaders and volunteers, who have discretion about who should receive them. He said those in attendance include undecided voters.
"We give out tickets . . . to people who support his reelection and people who may be undecided but want an opportunity to hear what he has to say," Stanzel said.
The Kerry campaign says it does not limit attendance based on political views, a point Kerry has made frequently when confronted by hecklers on the campaign trail. "We don't base entry to our events on political affiliation," said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer.
Critics also have raised questions about the role of the Secret Service, which has cordoned off broad areas around campaign events in the name of security and has, according to some complainants, played a role in arresting or removing law-abiding protesters.