Trespass charges dropped against Bush protesters

By JENNIFER BUNDY - The Associated Press
Thursday, July 15, 2004

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trespassing charges against two people who wore anti-Bush T-shirts to the president’s July 4 rally at the West Virginia Capitol were dropped Thursday because a city ordinance did not cover trespassing on Statehouse grounds.

Nicole and Jeff Rank of Corpus Christi, Texas, were removed from the event in restraints after taking off an outer layer of clothes to reveal homemade T-shirts that had President Bush’s name with a slash through it and the words "Love America, Hate Bush" on the back.

The Ranks were given summonses to appear in Charleston Municipal Court and released.

Charleston Municipal Judge Carole Bloom dismissed the charges on the motion of Assistant City Attorney Deloris Martin.

Nicole Rank, 30, who was doing environmental work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Memorial Day flooding in the state, was released from her position after her arrest without getting another assignment. She remains employed with FEMA.

Jeff Rank, 28, who is an unemployed oceanographer, was in West Virginia to be with her.

She said Thursday it is not uncommon to leave one FEMA job before being assigned another, although she had expected to work in West Virginia longer.

The couple said they were pleased with the case’s outcome and planned to return to Texas immediately.

Jeff Rank said the couple did not go the Capitol with the intention of being arrested. They are supporters of presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, but wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to see Bush and "give him a fair hearing."

"We certainly did not expect to be arrested for expressing our freedom of expression," Jeff Rank said.

He said they were not protesting in any other way than simply wearing the shirts and did not said anything.

Law enforcement officers told the couple to take the shirts off, cover them or get out. When they refused and sat down, they were arrested. They then stood and accompanied the police, said Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.

The Ranks said they have not protested at other political events and do not have any immediate plans to do so again.

"We’ll continue to exercise our right to free expression when we see fit. We’re not professional protesters," Jeff Rank said. "We’re going to get on with our lives and go back to Texas and get jobs."

Jones said, "I don’t think this was just about a T-shirt issue. There were other things going on there. The officers, quite frankly, feared for the safety of the Ranks."

Jones said the city officers who filed the trespassing charges were acting under the direction of the Secret Service.

"The officers are in a bind here," Jones said.

"I think we need some guidance. Perhaps the Secret Service should have been called and let the Secret Service do with them what they want," Jones said.

"The city of Charleston does not engage in violating people’s rights. We want everybody to come here," said Jones, a Republican.

Still, he said he would not apologize to the Ranks.

"They were there to get arrested. They succeeded."

Jones said he would talk to police before Kerry’s appearance Thursday evening at the University of Charleston. The Massachusetts senator was scheduled to appear at a rally on a lawn across the Kanawha River from the Capitol.

The Ranks were accompanied to the hearing by an attorney affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU’s West Virginia chapter, said the organization has been monitoring a pattern of similar cases in other states. The ACLU in September filed a federal lawsuit against the Secret Service, seeking an injunction against the Bush administration for segregating protesters at his public appearances.

The Secret Service agreed to stop the practice, ACLU attorney Witold Walczak told The Charleston Gazette.

Schneider said, "This case demonstrates we will be out there watching and monitoring to make sure free speech rights are not violated regardless of political affiliation."