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First Amendment
Bush foe loses 'fencing' match

Sign-carrier arrested after balking at curbs

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sixty-five-year-old Bill Neel wanted to needle President Bush in the spirit of the First Amendment.

So Neel concocted a protest sign, picked up his sister and drove to Neville Island, where they planned to spend Labor Day criticizing Bush in public. The president was in town to make a speech to unionized carpenters.

Bill Neel, 65, of Butler, was arrested for protesting outside the designated protest area when President Bush visited Neville Island on Labor Day. The sign he was carrying said: "The Bushes must truly love the poor -- they've made so many of us." (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Neel, of Butler, learned on his arrival that demonstrators against Bush were being herded onto a baseball field behind a fence at Neville Memorial Park.

He refused to join other protesters inside the fence, saying the arrangement infringed on his right of free speech and reminded him of a Nazi concentration camp.

Neel insisted on holding his sign outside the fence, so Allegheny County police arrested him and took him away in handcuffs. They detained him for two hours in a fire hall and confiscated his sign, which said: "The Bushes must truly love the poor -- they've made so many of us."

Neel was freed after he received a summons accusing him of disorderly conduct. He said yesterday he plans to ask for a court hearing because everything he did is protected by the First Amendment.

"The police told me I had to be in the designated free-speech area. That's a contradiction in terms," he said.

Neel's sister, Joyce L. Neel, 50, also was arrested. She ran to her brother as police were taking him away. He said she gets upset easily and can be loud, but she did nothing illegal.

Neville Police Superintendent Edward Selzer said keeping protesters behind a fence was his idea.

"You can't deny them the right to demonstrate, but you can restrict where they demonstrate," said Selzer, a Neville officer for 42 1/2 years. "It's best for everybody that way."

He said almost everyone complied with the arrangement. The Neels were the only two arrested.

County Police Superintendent Ken Fulton said the U.S. Secret Service specified crowd-control procedures to ensure Bush's safety. His officers, he said, were enforcing rules put in place by federal agents.

"The magistrate could let them go when they appear in court," he said of the Neels. "It's no skin off my back."

Selzer said Bush was the first president to visit Neville Island since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, and the event generated intense regional interest. Protesters wanted to use Bush's appearance as an excuse to take over a neighborhood, Selzer said, so he decided to limit their ability to move about.

"One group wanted to have 300 people on the street. That's too large. You can't have them meandering around, carrying signs. That's disorderly."

Neel said he and his sister were not affiliated with any organization. They went to Neville Island to pan the president, he said, because they disagree with his policies.

Various people with signs friendly to Bush were allowed to stand along Neville Island's main street, where the president's motorcade passed. One Neville Island woman carried a homemade sign that said, "Hello, George." She said she stood along the street for about seven hours until Bush arrived.

Neel said county officers were "professional and nonjudgmental" when they arrested him. But, he said, the steps taken to buffer Bush from critics were indefensible.

"It's not me that's in trouble. It's the country," said Neel, a retired steelworker who has run for Congress as a Democrat and for the state Legislature as a Republican.

No date has been scheduled for his court hearing.

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

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