Navy violated Vieques protesters’ First Amendment rights, ACLU lawsuit says

Friday, June 29, 2001
In picture provided by U.S. Navy, protesters on Vieques island, Puerto Rico, throw rocks from outside fence at U.S. Naval Installation Camp Garcia as Naval Security Forces spray pepper fog on April 27.

U.S. Navy officials violated the free-speech and free-assembly rights of demonstrators when they tear-gassed and fired rubber bullets at those protesting bombing exercises on Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island, the American Civil Liberties Union claims in a federal lawsuit filed June 18.

The ACLU is representing a priest, two nuns and four Vieques residents who were protesting April 27-29 at the Justice and Peace Camp outside Camp Garcia, a Navy installation on the island.

The complaint alleges that Navy officers assaulted the protesters as they participated in events at the Justice and Peace Camp, which was established by the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques as a headquarters for organizing protest activities.

“The Navy acted shamefully and illegally,” said Janice Gutierrez Lacourt, an ACLU representative in Puerto Rico. “The ACLU is asking the court to ensure the safety and free-speech rights of the Vieques demonstrators by banning the further use of excessive force as a crowd control measure.”

According to the suit, demonstrators began gathering at Camp Garcia to protest military bombing exercises in April 1999 after a stray bomb from a U.S. fighter jet killed a civilian employee, David Sanes Rodriguez.

The Navy has conducted bombing exercises for over 60 years on Vieques, which has approximately 9,400 residents.

Named as defendants in the suit are Gordon England, Secretary of the U.S. Navy, and Rear Admiral Kevin Green, commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Southern Command.

“Our first obligation in training our forces is to ensure that we do no harm to our neighbors in the process,” Green said in a message on the U.S. Navy Web site. “Any action that harms our neighbors is intolerable,” he said. “We must always consider the effect of our operations on our people … whether it is in Vieques, or elsewhere in the United States.”

The suit claims the majority of protesters who gathered on Vieques April 27-29 “engaged in peaceful protest and did not engage in any activity which could be characterized as illegal, such as trespassing or rock-throwing.”

According to the suit, naval personnel, dressed in full riot gear, used violent measures to break up “peaceful activities” including a children’s clown show in late April. “The primary weapon used by government authorities to disperse the crowd involved chemical agents fired from grenade launches which sent the crowd into a panic and running for cover.”

On April 29, the Navy fired on a group of people who were assembled on Justice and Peace Camp property where a religious service was being held, the complaint states. “Panic ensued with people running at each other and many people were injured.”

Miriam N. Rodriquez Mojica, a Catholic nun, said tear gas, fired at the demonstrators, caused her to vomit and also affected her breathing.

One of the protesters, Valgina Rodriguez Calderon, and her 11-year-old son, were gassed along with dozens of other children and their parents while attending a clown show at the camp, the suit states.

The suit contends that the Navy has violated the First Amendment by adopting a “zero tolerance” for protest activities on Vieques and by “attempting to suppress a particular viewpoint.”

Robert D. Richards, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, says the viewpoint-discrimination argument is central to the ACLU case. Because military bases are not public spaces, the government has “greater latitude to restrict expression as long as it does not do so on the basis of viewpoint,” Richards said.

In Greer v. Spock, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court gave “greater deference to military regulations, even when similar regulations would be struck down in civilian society.” In that case, the court ruled that an army base in New Jersey had the right to bar political candidates from making speeches or distributing campaign leaflets on base property.

If the district court accepts the protesters’ argument that the reason for the military’s actions was “viewpoint based,” they stand a greater chance of winning their case, Richards said.

The protesters are seeking a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief prohibiting the Navy from using weapons to disperse protesters. They are also asking for attorney’s fees and court costs.

Several celebrities and activists who have protested on Vieques to stop the military exercises have been arrested for trespassing, including Jesse Jackson’s wife, Jacqueline Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Jackson was released from a federal detention center yesterday after serving a 10-day sentence. Sharpton is still serving a 90-day jail term.

President George Bush has ordered the Navy to cease military exercises on the island in 2003. But protesters are demanding that the military training stop immediately.

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