CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- When school was canceled to accommodate a campaign visit by President Bush, the two 55-year-old teachers thought the time was ripe to voice their simmering discontent with the administration's policies.
Christine Nelson showed up at the Cedar Rapids rally with a Kerry-Edwards button pinned on her T-shirt; Alice McCabe clutched a small, paper sign stating ``No More War." What could be more American, they thought, than mixing a little dissent with the bunting and buzz of a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by the president?
Their reward: a pair of handcuffs and a strip search at the county jail.
Authorities say they were arrested because they refused to obey reasonable security restrictions, but the women disagree: ``Because I had a dissenting opinion, they did what they needed to do to get me out of the way," said Nelson, who teaches history and government at one of this city's middle schools.
``I tell my students all the time about how people came to this country for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, that those rights and others are sacred. And all along I've been thinking to myself, `not at least during this administration.' "
Their experience is hardly unique.
In the months before the 2004 election, dozens of people across the nation were banished from or arrested at Bush political rallies, some for heckling the president, others simply for holding signs or wearing clothing that expressed opposition to the war and administration policies.
Similar things have happened at official, taxpayer-funded, presidential visits, before and after the election. Some targeted by security have been escorted from events, while others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors that were later dropped by local prosecutors.
Now, in federal courthouses from Charleston, W.Va., to Denver, federal officials and state and local authorities are being forced to defend themselves against lawsuits challenging the arrests and security policies.
While the circumstances differ, the cases share the same fundamental themes. Generally, they accuse federal officials of developing security measures to identify, segregate, deny entry, or expel dissenters.
In Cedar Rapids, McCabe and Nelson were charged with criminal trespass, but the charges were later dropped.
They are now suing three unnamed Secret Service agents, the Iowa State Patrol, and two county sheriff deputies who took part in their 2004 arrest.
Nelson and McCabe, who now lives in Memphis, accuse law enforcement of violating their right to free speech, assembly, and equal protection.
A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment on pending litigation or answer questions on security policy for presidential events. White House spokesman Alex Conant also declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
But Justice Department lawyers, in documents filed recently in federal court in Cedar Rapids, outline security at the rally and defend the Secret Service agents' actions.
They contend the GOP obtained exclusive rights to use the park and that donation takers were ignored because they were an authorized part of the event. They also say McCabe and Nelson were disobedient, repeatedly refusing agents' orders to move.
``At no time did any political message expressed by the two women play any role in how [the agents] treated them," they wrote.