Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cindy Sheehan's t-shirt

At the State of the Union address a few days ago, anti-Iraq-war activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested and removed from the gallery because she was wearing a t-shirt highlighting the number of soldiers killed in President Bush's personal vendetta. Sheehan and others have proclaimed her arrest as proof that the Bush administration is an enemy of freedom.

The trouble is, it just ain't so.

The Capitol Police acted correctly and entirely within the law in both asking Cindy Sheehan to change her shirt and arresting her when she refused to comply. It wasn't during a State of the Union address, but I once sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives, more than three decades ago, during a family vacation in Washington. Not only would I have been removed for wearing a t-shirt with a political slogan (or commercial advertisement, or even a simple apolitical statement of patriotism), I was not allowed to read a newspaper (the rustling of the pages might disturb the legislators below) or even to read a paperback novel — even during a break in the proceedings. In the gallery of the House of Representatives, guests are expected and required to do nothing except sit quietly and observe. That's not some new post-9/11 rule, it is the way it has been for over two centuries.

Cindy Sheehan's freedom of speech is not absolute. Refusing to allow her to hijack "The People's House" for her own political platform was proper and necessary. She has the right to stand on the Capitol steps and speak against the President's foolish and immoral rush to send thousands of patriotic Americans to be killed or maimed in an unnecessary and counterproductive exercise in international bullying, but not the right to make that same statement from the gallery within the House chamber.

I met Cindy Sheehan in person, at Camp Casey II in Crawford, Texas. I even got to shake her hand. A month later, I was in the march on Washington, protesting the war. I admire much of what she has done in raising public awareness of the human cost of Bush's fantasies of being powerful and important. Furthermore, I do believe — based on issues like warrantless wiretaps and obsessive secrecy — that the Bush administration is the greatest threat to American freedom in the 21st century. However, Sheehan's wearing a t-shirt with a politically charged message in the gallery of the House of Representatives was nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt.

Voltaire didn't actually say, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." [The quote is actually from Beatrice Hall in 1906; it is her paraphrase of Voltaire's attitude.] In this case, however, I may approve of what Cindy Sheehan has to say, but I will not defend her for trying to say it in the House gallery.