Denver Three” Cases Test Limits of Free Speech

On March 21, 2005, a little more than two years ago, three Colorado residents–Leslie Weise, Alex Young, and Karen Bauer were forcibly ejected from a public presidential forum about Social Security privatization. Although the taxpayer-funded meeting was open to the public and all three possessed tickets for the event, local organizers, at the behest of White House staffers, decided to remove the three patrons because they arrived in a car with a bumper sticker reading, “No More Blood for Oil.” It was determined that the three “dissenters” could be seen as a potential threat to disrupt the meeting, even though they had not acted in a suspicious, disruptive, or threatening way.

Two separate civil lawsuits have been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of two members of the “Denver Three,” as the ejected Denver residents have become known. The first suit, filed in November of 2005, named local organizers of the event, Jay Bob Klinkerman and Michael Casper, as defendants in the case (Weise v. Casper), claiming that the defendants’ actions “violated plaintiffs’ First and Fourth Amendment rights” for denial of free speech and unlawful search and seizure. The plaintiffs filed a second complaint last month, also in the U.S. District Court for Colorado, naming as defendants Greg Jenkins and other Washington-based White House staffers, who have been accused of orchestrating the ejection of the Denver Three and of “establishing and enforcing a policy to eject persons” from public meetings “on the basis of their viewpoint.” Klinkerman and Casper have also claimed that they were merely acting under orders of the White House staff members who helped organize the event.

In a motion filed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, attorneys for Casper and Klinkerman (who, incidentally, was the head of the Colorado Young Republicans organization at the time of the incident) declared, “The president may constitutionally make viewpoint-based exclusionary determinations in conveying his own message. So in following the instructions of the White House and carrying out its viewpoint-based exclusions, Casper and Klinkerman did not violate any of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.” Defense attorneys originally sought to have the case dismissed in lower court by saying that Casper and Klinkerman had the right to qualified governmental immunity, but the district court rejected that motion.

Evidence clearly suggests that the Denver brouhaha was not an isolated incident. Various news reports have detailed similar incidents across the country in which citizens with “dissenting” viewpoints were denied admission to public, taxpayer-funded presidential events. When the original suit was filed in November of 2005, Weise said at the time, “What was supposed to be an historic opportunity for us to attend an event with a sitting president quickly turned into a humiliating and frightening experience. We had every right to attend the president’s event, and have decided to fight back to protect the Constitutional rights of all Americans.”

Added ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Chris Hansen, the case’s lead counsel, “The government should not be in the business of silencing Americans who are perceived to be critical of certain policy decisions. The president should be willing to be in the same room with people who might disagree with him, especially at a public, taxpayer-funded town hall.”

However, attorneys for Klinkerman and Casper are taking the exact opposite approach by claiming that their clients had every right to dismiss patrons “because they posed a threat of being disruptive.” Suffice to say, supporters of free speech in the United States are keeping a close eye on the proceedings of the Denver Three cases.

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