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Justice sends Bush camp a sign: Dissident corral not OK

Sunday, November 03, 2002

You had to have sympathy for Allegheny County Detective Thomas Ianachione as he sat alone in the courtroom in Coraopolis, watching the defense team file in.

"Oh wow," said District Justice Shirley Rowe Trkula as she watched her little workplace fill. "This court is honored. A-C-L-U. I didn't know it went up this far."

Tom Farrell, the former federal prosecutor who sent away former state Rep. Frank Gigliotti for extortion a couple of years ago, had volunteered his services to the American Civil Liberties Union for this case. As Farrell cross-examined Ianachione this Halloween morning, the county detective had about as much of a chance as a pumpkin has with a kitchen knife.

Not that this was Ianachione's fault. It was just his tough luck to be part of a uniformed detail on Neville Island this past Labor Day when President Bush came to visit. Following the orders of his supervisors and the U.S. Secret Service, Ianachione arrested Bill Neel of Butler for disorderly conduct, just because Neel wouldn't stop holding up a sign.

This police officer was merely a cog in a machine. Farrell, whose manner is more conversational than interrogational, could not have dreamed of a smoother morning. As Ianachione answered Farrell's questions truthfully and forthrightly, he quickly made the case that the right to freedom of speech was trampled that day in Neville.

Neel, 65, had come to the island with a sign many would consider unfair, even illogical, but few would consider any big deal. It said: "The Bush family must surely love the poor, they've made so many of us."

Ianachione testified that at a briefing that morning, a county police sergeant and members of the Secret Service had instructed officers to remove anyone carrying signs critical of the president and remove them to a fenced-off ball field far from the main event.

Neel wouldn't get behind that fence. He wasn't threatening. He didn't raise his voice. He uttered no obscenities or vulgarities. He simply wouldn't do as he was told when a police officer repeatedly told him to get in the corral with the other protesters. Instead, Neel kept talking about his rights as an American. When he was finally arrested, he went peacefully.

That was the sum of Ianachione's testimony, and Farrell never had to call on Neel or any other witness, because that was all the judge needed to hear. Trkula said Neel's actions did not rise to the level of disorderly conduct. She could have dismissed the charge without even getting into the First Amendment issue, but she couldn't resist.

"I believe this is America," she said. "Whatever happened to 'I don't agree with you but I'll defend to the death your right to say it?' "

The Bush administration has been setting up these "security zones" that are reserved for only those who protest his policies, and they are being moved farther and farther from the action, says Vic Walczak, director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh chapter.

Walczak said this "manipulates the public perception to make it appear the president is more popular. What's clear after today's hearing is that this is being directed at a federal level."

Ianachione's testimony at least strengthens that case, and the numerous photos of pro-Bush signs lining the Neville motorcade route destroys the argument that this roundup had a legitimate security purpose. Those who intend to threaten the president or anyone else don't often arrive with visual aids for the constabulary.

The ACLU's first priority was getting Neel's criminal charges dismissed, but now it's shifting gears to look at the "apparent federal policy to restrict and suppress dissent and criticism," Walczak said.

It's one thing for a president to pack a rally with his supporters. That's a tradition as old as the republic itself. But no president gets to clear the public streets of all naysayers, not even for one afternoon. Whether Labor Day on Neville Island was an aberration or part of a pattern is not yet clear, but this much is: President Bush needs to make sure the Not-OK Corral does not reopen in America again.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at 412-263-1947 or boneill@post-gazette.com

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