When Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a $1,000 a plate dinner on November 17, 2003, the area around the restaurant was bristling with law enforcement personnel, and protesters were forced, under threat of arrest, to stay in a fenced-in corral. Is that Cheney's version of freedom of assembly?
The governmental response to my attempt to assert my rights of freedom of speech and assembly at Fort Benning on November 23, 2003, was to file a federal charge against me. The government accused me of trespassing onto a military base for a purpose prohibited by military regulation, namely protest. The government's position was that prohibiting political expression on a military base is necessary to ensure an "apolitical" military that is subservient to civil authorities.
Certainly, the views of the School of the Americas Watch were seen as prohibited political expression at Fort Benning. We came there to demand the permanent closure of the School of the Americas (renamed in January 2001 as the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation"). We were there to demand an investigation of the school and its graduates by an independent truth and reconciliation commission, as recommended by Amnesty International in its November 2002 report, "Unmatched Power/Unmet Principles." We were there as witnesses to the suffering that victims of SOA graduates had endured. We were there to speak truth to power and to point out horrendous human rights violations. But unyielding power spoke to us in the form of military police and U.S. marshals.
Apparently, though, the Army felt that it was exempt from the very regulations that it enforced so vigorously against SOA Watch. On November 22, it disrupted SOA Watchs legal demonstration by blasting loud patriotic music from stereo speakers placed near the fence. The Army's claim was that it played the music to boost the morale of the troops, none of whom were anywhere near the fence. That loud music constituted symbolic speech, meaning that the Army had created a "limited public forum," argued attorney Ed Osowski, who represented Brother Mike O'Grady of Ohio, Father Bernard Survil of Pennsylvania, and me in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Georgia, on January 27. And, he argued, by arresting us when we walked around a fence not posted with "no trespassing" signs for expressing a contrary position, the Army was engaging in "viewpoint discrimination."
U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Mallon Faircloth convicted us of the trespass charge, anyway, even though the prosecution could not rebut our first-amendment defense. The prosecution could not even prove that the U.S. government owned the land on which Fort Benning has been built, as the Army's surveyor failed, when asked, to produce a deed to the property.
When Judge Faircloth asked me if I had anything to say before sentencing, I talked mostly about my feelings about a school that continues to operate, despite charges that its graduates have engaged in hideous acts of torture and assassination. I expressed in court the things that I was not permitted to say at Fort Benning, where I was processed twice, roughly searched, and shackled. I concluded by saying, "...I do not believe that I have violated any laws. I believe that my actions were protected by the U.S. Constitutions guarantee of free speech and free assembly and that these rights do not end with a fence at the end of the road."
By January 28, twenty-seven of us had been convicted of asserting our rights beyond that fence at the end of the road. I recalled that, when I was brought to the Muscogee County Jail on November 23, my copy of the constitution was described on my personal property inventory sheet as a "pocket guide book." Not as the law of the land. Just a "guide book." That seems to say it all.
by Alice E. Gerard
I carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution in my purse. And, yes, on occasion, I read it. As a journalist, I pay special attention to the section that tells me that I have the right to freedom of speech and of the press and of assembly, without governmental interference. When I report to federal prison to serve my 90-day sentence for "criminal trespass" on the grounds of Fort Benning, Georgia, I hope that I will be permitted to keep that document to remind me of the ideals upon which this country was founded. My new surroundings will vividly illustrate to me how far this country has fallen from those ideals.