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Judge clears Bush opponent

'I think they went a little too far. He has the right to protest'

Friday, November 01, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bill Neel, the 65-year-old man arrested for carrying a sign that lampooned President Bush, walked out of court a winner yesterday.

District Justice Shirley Rowe Trkula threw out a disorderly conduct charge against Neel, saying he was guilty of nothing except trying to peaceably exercise his First Amendment right to free speech.

"This is America," Trkula said in dismissing the case without Neel having to put on a defense.

Trkula decided that Allegheny County police were overzealous in their attempts to herd Neel into a fenced area for protesters, then handcuffing him when he resisted.

Neel was arrested on Labor Day during an appearance by Bush on Neville Island. Neel arrived with a sign that said: "The Bush family must surely love the poor. They've made so many of us."

Detective Thomas Ianachione testified that he had received orders from his department superiors and the U.S. Secret Service to keep demonstrators against Bush behind the fence of a baseball field of Neville Island Memorial Park. Bush's motorcade would pass that spot before the president gave a speech to union carpenters.

Ianachione said he asked Neel several times to move to the designated protest zone. Neel, Ianachione said, defied him.

Under cross-examination by defense lawyer Thomas Farrell, Ianachione said Neel did not raise his voice, never used profanity and did not threaten anyone. Rather, Neel insisted that police had no reason to order him into the protesters' pit, which he said was a violation of his constitutional rights and reminded him of a Nazi concentration camp.

Ianachione said he had no choice but to arrest Neel and confiscate his protest sign.

Trkula asked Ianachione why people with pro-Bush signs were allowed to stand along the street or walk about freely before and during the president's appearance. Ianachione said most signs he saw were critical of Bush, and his orders were to place those people behind the fence.

Farrell, who represented Neel for free at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked Trkula to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

She promptly did so.

Trkula ruled that nothing Neel did constituted disorderly conduct. Beyond that, she said, "Whatever happened to 'I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' "

"I think they went a little too far," she said of county police. "He has the right to protest."

Neel, of Butler, said he expected the ruling to go his way. His only disappointment, he said, was that he lost his opportunity to speak out against Bush.

Ianachione, 41, shook hands with Neel after the ruling and gave him back the protest sign.

Outside the 20-seat courtroom in Coraopolis, Neel asked people affiliated with the case to autograph his sign.

He promised to criticize the president at his next opportunity, even if it means another showdown with police.

Vic Walczak, executive director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh branch, also was in court. He said Neel's case represented a growing problem, as crackdowns on peaceful protesters have occurred around the country.

"This is about core American values of dissent and expression," Walczak said. "Dissenting points of view are being placed out of sight, out of earshot and ultimately out of mind."

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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