Pelosi censors poster of troops

Fred Garvin's picture

Pelosi censors poster of troops
Bruce Fein

Friday, August 22, 2008

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-S.F., has done something worse than commit a crime against the First Amendment. The speaker's censorship of nonobtrusive posters featuring men and women who gave that last full measure of devotion in service to their country is a blunder that could alienate 23 million veterans and their families from the Democratic Party. If she is endowed with a crumb of constitutional or political sense, she will reverse course.

The tale of Pelosi's folly begins with Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. He wished to pay tribute to the service members of Camp Lejeune who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Accordingly, Walter placed a poster flat against the wall in the corridor outside his office showing their names and pictures.

It was altogether fitting that Jones saluted the fallen soldiers on congressional premises. Congress authorized the wars that occasioned their tragic deaths. Congress appropriated the money that dispatched them to mortal danger. The posters communicated to congressional visitors that war is a combination of heroism and hell. Voters would leave with more informed judgments about the costs of the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no tension between Jones' wall poster and the ordinary use of the House Rayburn Office Building to host direct communications between Members of the House and the public. On one occasion, for instance, a mother from Minnesota entered Jones' office with tears in her eyes to thank him for displaying the picture of her son who had been killed while serving the nation.

Speaker Pelosi apparently took umbrage. Under federal law, she is empowered to issue and enforce rules and regulations governing the use of the House office buildings. A 1999 rule prohibits "displaying any flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice any person, party, organization or movement..." On April 17, Pelosi issued a sister hallway policy to improve compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act by restricting "the display of flags and the placing or storing of any items within a hallway exit access, exit or stairwell of the House Office Buildings."

On Aug. 2, the architect of the Capitol removed Jones' name and picture poster from the Rayburn Office Building wall. Borrowing a page from Humpty Dumpty in "Through the Looking Glass," the removal notice insisted that the poster violated the hallway policy, although it was neither a flag nor a stored item within a hallway. The architect also hinted that the wall poster constituted a "flag, banner, or device" prohibited by the 1999 rule, although no one associates any of those nouns with a wall poster.

Displaying homage to fallen soldiers constitutes core political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has routinely invalidated unreasonable restrictions on the use of government property for speech purposes. And as applied to the wall poster, the hallway policy amounts to censorship for the sake of censorship.

Irrespective of free speech, the prospect of losing the veterans' vote in November should concentrate Pelosi's mind on honoring the right of all members of Congress to display wall posters in House office buildings commemorating those who died in furthering wars that Pelosi has voted to fund.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer at Bruce Fein & Associates and author of "Constitutional Peril: The Life and Death Struggle for the Constitution and Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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JeffC's picture
Submitted by JeffC on Mon, 08/25/2008 - 11:50am.

When I heard Hannity talking about this I immediately wondered what the true story was and looked it up.

The new “clean up” rule was approved by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio who sit on the commission that oversees the Capitol complex. It was designed to make it safer for staffers and tourists to exit the building in case of an evacuation or terrorist attack and to make it easier for people using wheelchairs to navigate congressional corridors.

The non-partisan rule will also require (for instance) members of the Blue Dog coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats to remove signs near their doorways spotlighting the national debt.

Incidentally, the story is intentionally misleading (surprise) in referring to the “wall posters” leaving the impression that these are posters on the wall. They are, in fact, large posters mounted on easels in the hallway. Congressmen can mount posters on the wall outside of their offices if they wish to do so.

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