Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dissent is being challenged everywhere/Request to ban activists raises eyebrows

November 6, 2010

Request to ban activists raises eyebrows


Polk County prosecutors have requested that a Grinnell grandmother and a Des Moines laborer be permanently banned from the Federal Building in Des Moines for their persistent anti-war protests.

Civil rights advocates are sounding the alarm, saying the request, if granted, constitutes a violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech and the right to petition government.

"It's highly unusual, and it's certainly something that deserves tremendous scrutiny to whether or not it's appropriate," said Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. "It seems difficult to comprehend the justification for this."

Christine Gaunt, 54, has for the past eight months frequently staged "die-ins," where she outlines her body in chalk dust and pretends to be dead, in the Des Moines offices of Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin.

Typically federal protection service officials have gently scooped her limp body into a wheelchair and escorted her from the building, often giving her a $100 citation, she said.

But in August, she and Elton Davis, 48, who is self-employed and works on chimneys, were arrested on trespassing charges after months of their nonviolent protests.

Arrests of anti-war protesters at the Federal Building are common. What's unusual is that Polk County prosecutors on Thursday asked Iowa District Judge Odell McGhee to sentence the duo to a permanent Federal Building ban.

McGhee continued the sentencing hearing to next Friday.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss a pending case.

Sally Frank, a Drake University law professor who is helping represent the protesters as part of the Drake Legal Clinic's work, said she is unaware of such a request being made in the past. She said it could set a dangerous precedent.

"This isn't Walmart," which is private property, Frank said. "It's a government building, where citizens have a right to petition for redress of grievances."

Beth Pellett Levine, a spokeswoman for Grassley, noted that the senator and his staff had personally met with many protesters on many occasions. When asked by e-mail whether Grassley had requested that the two protesters be banned, she did not respond to the question.

Bergen Kenny, a spokeswoman for Harkin, said the senator had not requested that the pair be banned from the Federal Building.

"Senator Harkin has not had any interaction with prosecutors regarding this case," Kenny said. "In fact, his office has tried to balance these Iowans' rights to free speech within the rules of the Federal Building. It was only in the most extreme cases, when protesters would not leave as the building was closing, that law enforcement had to intervene."

Gaunt, a vegan who raises hogs on a family farm, is also a library worker at Grinnell College. She has been arrested many times since she began her war protests about a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Once she spent three months in jail, and, another time, six months.

At one point, the college fired her, but the decision was ultimately reversed. She was granted a leave of absence while serving her jail time, in part a response to reaction from students and faculty, she said.

"Peace work has become my life's work," Gaunt said. "I know I have a First Amendment right to be there."

Frank said Davis did not wish to comment.


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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