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Activist ban goes to court

Broadmoor protest case puts First Amendment on trial

Thomas Marrese, an attorney for Colorado Springs, - cradles his jacket as he approaches the federal court - building in Denver last week, flanked by an aide and - police officials. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Thomas Marrese, an attorney for Colorado Springs, cradles his jacket as he approaches the federal court building in Denver last week, flanked by an aide and police officials.

Colorado Springs police got so swept up in the exciting, high-stakes world of political intrigue during a NATO defense conference at The Broadmoor two years ago that they trod upon the rights of the very people the free world seeks to protect.

That was the central argument in a federal trial against the city last week.

Lawyers for a small band of peace activists, Citizens for Peace in Space, argued the city was overzealous when it approved security measures that prevented a handful of people from gathering for an anti-war protest on public streets outside the hotel during the October 2003 conference.

"We had a right to have our message heard," said Bill Sulzman, a member of the group, after he testified in the July 5-7 trial in Denver. "We weren't allowed to do it."

Several high-ranking police and military witnesses called the two-block buffer zone that surrounded the hotel necessary to protect defense ministers from a potential bombing.

But none of the city's witnesses said there were any credible threats of a terrorist attack.

The activists intended to protest the NATO conference in opposition to the war in Iraq and because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in attendance.

"In my view [the protesters] did not belong there," said Col. Ulysses Middleton, the Air Force security chief who worked closely with city police in establishing the buffer.

Colorado Springs Assistant Police Chief Steven Liebowitz said police and a variety of military and federal agencies, including the FBI, had a difficult task in overseeing a conference where some nations did not "play well" with others.

Even the journalists attending the conference were viewed as potential foreign spies whose movements had to be limited, he said.

Others free to come and go

Yet even as the six protesters were kept out, residents living inside the perimeter of the security zone, and their visitors, were allowed to come and go freely during the NATO conference without being frisked for weapons. Also, armed foreign undercover agents who guarded defense ministers went through checkpoints without challenge and were not required to submit to background checks by U.S. officials.

Meanwhile, Sulzman and five fellow activists agreed to undergo security checks and tone down their protest in order to be allowed near the hotel.

Such promises weren't good enough for police, Liebowitz said. He feared that if Citizens for Peace in Space was allowed to protest it would "open the floodgates" for activists, some perhaps interested in civil disobedience.

"We exercised the option not to allow -- not to allow them down that road," Liebowitz said.

It was fairer, he added, to bar everyone who came to express a political view.

Denver attorney Mari Newman represented six activists - on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Denver attorney Mari Newman represented six activists on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mari Newman, a lawyer for the activists, said police, in effect, created a double standard whereby some people got in for little apparent reason, but anyone with an obvious opinion about NATO was excluded.

"This notion that these six peaceful activists posed a massive security risk justifying martial law is insanity," she said after the trial.

Catching the judge's ire

During the two-day trial, Judge Richard Matsch became irritated with attorneys several times, but none infuriated him as much as Thomas Marrese, who argued Colorado Springs' case.

When Marrese asked for a "directed verdict," Matsch became incensed, pointing out that such a procedure isn't allowed in a federal courtroom. The judge then asked Marrese if he meant he wanted the case to be dismissed, which Marrese said was his intent.

"Well make it short, because [the motion is] going to be denied and we need to move on," Matsch warned.

But for several minutes Marrese, appearing to read systematically from his notes, insisted on asking that the case be thrown out, prompting Matsch to shout loudly in an effort to halt him.

At another point, Matsch rubbed his face with both hands while Marrese spoke. Those involved with the case became hushed as observers muffled their laughter.

Marrese later tested Matsch's patience by admitting that a tangent regarding "unprepared and inactive" protesters was irrelevant to his case, and that he had just been filling time -- as Matsch suspected.

"I was going to pad it a little bit," Marrese admitted, provoking a puzzled look from the judge.

Pointing fingers

Witnesses for the city raised some doubts over who had jurisdiction over the NATO conference -- the city or the federal government.

Middleton testified that unnamed officials in Washington, D.C., insisted certain security criteria be met "line for line," but was unclear about the role city police played in creating the plan.

Marrese, meanwhile, argued Middleton's testimony indicated that the city wasn't to blame for barring activists.

Yet Matsch said Colorado Springs possesses legal jurisdiction over the public streets that surround the privately owned Broadmoor and ultimately was responsible for defending its residents' constitutional rights.

The case could have implications for any American that comes to express an opinion about the federal government during such high-security events.

It is unclear exactly when Matsch will hand down his ruling. The judge said he would weigh security concerns carefully as he reviews the case.

"We're dealing here, after all, with the First Amendment," he said, adding it is among the "most fragile" of the protections in a free society.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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