BALTIMORE, DEC. 10 -- Among the hundreds of visitors who streamed to the Convention Center here today to see a 200-year-old copy of the nation's Bill of Rights were protesters exercising one of those rights, freedom of speech.
Anti-smoking activists said sponsorship of the $60 million high-technology traveling exhibit by the cigarette-manufacturing Philip Morris Cos. Inc. is an insult to the country's founders.
"Philip Morris has a history of censoring information about the killing effects of smoking," Regina Carlson, a leader of GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution), said during a news conference at the Convention Center's entrance. "How can somebody who kills people and suppresses free speech try to champion the Bill of Rights?"
Protesters complained among other things that Philip Morris suppressed "Death in the West," a television documentary contrasting Marlboro ads with footage of smoking cowboys dying of lung diseases.
Philip Morris spokesman Robert McInerney declined to comment, saying he had "no fact basis" on the allegation.
Protesters from GASP, the AIDS rights group ACT-UP, the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency and other organizations have been dogging the bicentennial Bill of Rights exhibit since it started its 50-state road tour two months ago in New England.
They say they'll keep following it until the tour is completed in February 1992.
At today's news conference, protesters displayed a 15-foot-high fiber glass mock Statue of Liberty bound in chains with the raised hand holding a cigarette butt and the other hand holding a pack of Marlboros, a Philip Morris brand.
Inside the Convention Center, hundreds of visitors ignored the protest and were shepherded through the exhibit by security officers.
The yellowing, single-page handwritten Bill of Rights, according to a Philip Morris leaflet, is sealed in a capsule "pressurized with chemically pure nitrogen" to eliminate atmospheric pollution that might harm the document.
Visitors viewed the document through multilayered, bullet-resistant glass as the capsule trundled back and forth on a track between two viewing rooms.
McInerney said tight security is necessary to prevent theft or vandalism of the document, one of only 12 remaining originals. The copy on display is from Virginia, home state of Philip Morris.
During the tour, the document is transported from city to city in a specially designed armored car with a computer system for controlling the proper temperature and humidity for the document.
Philip Morris has been the target of other protests. ACT-UP called for a boycott of Marlboros and Miller beer because of the corporation's political action committee contributions to the reelection campaign this year of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a critic of gay rights who has sought to put restrictions on how AIDS research funds are spent.
Also, the District school board accepted a $1 million education grant from Philip Morris this year, but only after protests by some board members over taking money linked to the sale of cigarettes.