Authorities say protesters arrested for blocking mansion entrance

Wednesday, May 12, 1999

Opinions differ about whether a recent protest blocked the sidewalk in front of the Texas governor's mansion in Austin.

Four people were arrested in a protest in front of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's mansion on April 19. They were charged with obstructing the entrance to the mansion, which is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail.

“They were arrested not because they were blocking the sidewalk; they were arrested because they were protesting,” Jay Jacobson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said. Jacobson was at the protest.

Gov. Bush said a designated protest area had been established across the street because of mansion renovation, not because he might run for president, The Dallas Morning News reported.

The rule prohibiting protesting in front of the mansion is unconstitutional as applied, Jacobson says. “They cannot deny access to demonstrate [against] the government,” he said.

Jacobson said the designated protest area across the street from the mansion, called the “Free Speech” area, cannot be seen from the mansion. If the protesters can't be seen, they can't be effective, he said.

Claims that the sidewalk is off limits because of renovations to the governor's mansion are unfounded, Jacobson says, because the protesters were on the east side of the mansion and the renovations are happening on the north side of the mansion, Jacobson says.

Mike Cox, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said that when protesters are blocking the sidewalk they cause pedestrians to have to walk in the street, thus putting the pedestrian's lives in danger.

“Only when [protesters] refuse to leave are they arrested,” Cox said.

Jacobson says the protesters were asked to leave but they said they refused because they were exercising their First Amendment rights.

Jacobson said that the protesters were lined up single file, facing out, with their backs against the fence surrounding the mansion. “They were not blocking the sidewalk,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said he and a colleague stood on the sidewalk reading a newspaper about 10 feet from the protesters. “We were closer to the entrance than [the protesters],” he said.

“I had a newspaper and they had signs protesting the governor's actions. That's why they were arrested.” Jacobson says that his colleague was questioned about whether she was a protester or not, and when she told them she was not, they let her alone.

Jacobson said blocking the sidewalk could not have been the reason for the police action, “or I would have been asked to move as well.”

According to The Dallas Morning News, the protesters opposed Gov. Bush's plan to allow older utilities and industrial plants to voluntarily curb emissions rather than meet more stringent federal air-quality standards.

An arraignment hearing is scheduled for May 20, but Jacobson said it could take six months to resolve the case. He said he didn't know who would be representing the protesters.