Apparently last night’s State of the Union speech kept the Capitol police rather busy last night. They arrested Cindy Sheehan and ejected Rep. Bill Young’s wife, both for wearing t-shirts that had political messages on them. The actions had Capitol police backpedaling this evening, issuing apologies and suggesting that officers might need more training:
Capitol Police dropped a charge of unlawful conduct against anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan on Wednesday and apologized for ejecting her and a congressman’s wife from President Bush’s State of the Union address for wearing T-shirts with war messages.
“The officers made a good faith, but mistaken effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said in a statement late Wednesday.
“The policy and procedures were too vague,” he added. “The failure to adequately prepare the officers is mine.”
The extraordinary statement came a day after police removed Sheehan and Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, R-Fla., from the visitors gallery Tuesday night. Sheehan was taken away in handcuffs before Bush’s arrival at the Capitol and charged with a misdemeanor, while Young left the gallery and therefore was not arrested, Gainer said.
“Neither guest should have been confronted about the expressive T-shirts,” Gainer’s statement said.
I suspect that CQ readers will disagree with me on this one, but I concur with Gainer. Neither woman should have been arrested or made to leave the gallery on the basis of their t-shirts, especially at a public event like the SOTU speech. I don’t think that the two women had equivalent standing, nor do I think that Mrs. Young’s t-shirt would have been as potentially distracting as Mrs. Sheehan’s. However, the point is that as long as both women behaved themselves, their t-shirts would have had no disruptive effect on the speech. Yes, I know that there is a tradition of restraint in the gallery, but politicians of both parties make extensive use of those guest passes for political purposes during SOTU speeches. Every president in the television age put people up there that they used to emphasize major points of their speech, and no one barks about that exploitation of the gallery.
When I first heard that Sheehan had been arrested, the reports said that she had attempted to unfurl a banner in the gallery. That kind of action certainly would have justified the removal of Sheehan from the gallery but hardly qualified as a criminal act, especially under the amorphous terms of “unlawful conduct.” Having to face charges for wearing a t-shift with a slogan on it is flat-out ridiculous. What laws does that “conduct” break? And since when have we become so fragile that the wearing of a protest t-shirt become so unsettling?
Both women should have reconsidered their wardrobe for the speech. However, a fashion crime should not equate to police action, and arresting someone for wearing a dumb t-shirt should not happen in America.
UPDATE: Capitol police, not DC police; according to CQ reader Scott Crawford, they are two different entities.