T he free-speech rights of four Colorado Springs peace activists were violated when El Paso County sheriff's deputies arrested them for holding a demonstration outside last year's Air Force Academy graduation ceremony, a judge ruled Tuesday.
El Paso County Judge Barney Iuppa threw out a trespassing case against Bill Sulzman, Mary Lynn Sheetz, and Peter and Mary Sprunger-Froese, finding that the four had been illegally arrested while exercising their First Amendment rights outside the Academy's south gate on May 29, 2002. The activists staged the demonstration to protest the policies of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was speaking at the commencement ceremony.
"They had no right to arrest us that day," Sulzman said after the case was dismissed. "We think that we've been vindicated."
Sulzman and the other three defendants were among 15 to 20 protesters who participated in the rally off Academy Boulevard, near Interstate 25. The Air Force Academy asked the protesters to leave, arguing that they were standing on Academy property. But four of them refused, insisting they were standing in the public right-of-way. They were arrested, booked and charged with trespassing.
In court Tuesday, Bruce Wright, a local expert in real-estate law, testified that the area in question is in fact public. Although the area is technically Academy property, it is part of a highway easement granted to the Colorado Department of Transportation -- and thus within the public right-of-way. Upon hearing Wright's testimony, Iuppa dismissed the case.
The decision came just days after three Catholic nuns with Colorado Springs connections were given federal prison sentences ranging from 30 to 41 months for trespassing at a nuclear-missile silo in northern Colorado, and attempting to sabotage the silo in October of last year. The highly publicized case against the nuns, who previously carried out a similar action at Peterson Air Force Base in the Springs, has been credited with breathing new life into the international anti-nuclear movement.
Air Force Academy representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday's dismissal.