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No freedom on July 4th

Posted in the database on Thursday, August 17th, 2006 @ 14:55:42 MST (3075 views)
by Rick Casey    The Houston Chronicle  

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Being as it was just the sort of thing agents of King George might have done to help provoke the American Revolution, it was fitting that it happened on the Fourth of July.

But it wasn't agents of King George III who ordered Jeff and Nicole Rank to be shackled and led off to jail for showing public disrespect to their sovereign.

It was agents of President George W.

The Ranks aren't radical sorts.

Jeff, 31, grew up a "Navy brat," born in Virginia and schooled K-12 in the Flour Bluff section of Corpus Christi that houses the Naval Air Station. He served as the marine extension agent for Matagorda County, and voted mainly Republican.

Nicole, 32, worked for FEMA as an environmental compliance officer, making sure that reconstruction projects in the wake of disasters complied with federal regulations.

T-shirts and Sharpies

Two summers ago she was sent to West Virginia in the wake of severe flooding. Jeff, who had quit his job and was deciding between law school and pursuing a doctorate in physics, went with her.

"I had pretty much decided on law school, but the arrest hardened my resolve," said Jeff, now a second-year law student at the University of Houston.

An e-mail had gone out at the FEMA office inviting employees to pick up tickets to a campaign rally for Bush on the state Capitol grounds in Charleston, W.Va.

The Ranks decided to go but did not want to be counted among Bush supporters.

Despite considering himself a Republican, Jeff Rank says he disagreed with Bush on a number of issues, including stem cell research, the war in Iraq and Bush's environmental policies.

So he went to Target, bought two white T-shirts and some Sharpie markers, and he and Nicole personalized their shirts.

A city apologizes

Both included the word "Bush" on the front, with the international "no" symbol of a circle with a diagonal slash.

On the back Jeff's said, "Regime change starts at home," and Nicole's said, "Love America, Hate Bush."

When they went to the rally the next day they wore overshirts covering the T-shirts.

As luck would have it, their color-coded tickets assigned them to a spot between the media stand and the podium. So when they took off their overshirts, well before Bush arrived, the TV cameras focused on them.

Almost immediately, two men wearing badges saying "Event Staff" approached them and told them they either needed to cover the T-shirts or leave.

"We told them no, and explained that this would be the sum total of our protest," Jeff said. "We weren't going to do anything else. We said you are welcome to search us or to stand by us, but we weren't going to do anything more."

They told the same thing to two men who appeared to be Secret Service agents, but to no avail. Charleston police officers were called over and told to arrest the couple.

The Ranks were handcuffed, led through the crowd to a police car, taken to jail, booked, fingerprinted and held for more than an hour on a charge of trespassing.

Then FEMA suspended Nicole while the charges were pending. Her pay was suspended, and FEMA quit paying for her hotel room.

"We were in shock," said Jeff.

They decided to head back to Texas. They were several hundred miles away when he called the number on the ticket they were issued to confirm his understanding that he didn't need to make a July 15 court date in person but could call in.

"The woman asked what I was charged with and then my name. When I said Jeff Rank, she said, 'No, you have to come in,' " Rank said.

To his surprise, the courtroom was packed. TV cameras lined the wall. Even the mayor showed up. But prosecutors moved to drop the case.

As it turned out there was no such municipal offense as trespassing on the state Capitol lawn.

The mayor had enough understanding of the First Amendment to be embarrassed. Days later, on his own initiative, he would lead the City Council in issuing a formal apology to the Ranks.

Unfortunately, the Bush campaign lacked such an understanding. Throughout the campaign, officials had dissenters thrown out of rallies or arrested for activities such as that of the Ranks.

The result is that the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies are facing lawsuits throughout the country, including one in a West Virginia federal court being pursued on behalf of the Ranks by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It's shocking that we're still fighting over freedom of speech in America," said Jeff Rank. "That's the reason we're continuing to pursue this. We think that's something worth fighting for."

Rank wanted it made clear that he would feel the same way if he were thrown out of a Democratic rally, which is the sort of rally he now might attend. He has switched parties.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at rick.casey@chron.com.


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