Some folks on The Hill believe in the First Amendment

At Iraq Hearing, Protest Shushed But Not Halted

Thursday, February 8, 2007; Page A19

Pink-clad war protesters applauded, chimed in repeatedly and stood for hours in the back row holding up peace signs — but were only mildly chastised yesterday by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) at a hearing with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Before Democrats took charge of Congress, such protesters were usually quickly hustled out of hearing rooms by Capitol police. But yesterday they served almost as a Greek chorus. “This was definitely exceptional,” said Toby Blome of San Francisco, wearing a pink hat to represent her group, Code Pink: Women for Peace.

The tone was set early on when Skelton politely asked two standing protesters to “please be seated so the people behind you can see.” One of them responded that she was a constituent and then complied. “Thank you very much,” Skelton said.

The half-dozen demonstrators then moved to the back row and continued standing, and speaking out.

“Americans want a peace plan! Stop the fighting,” one said, interrupting Gates.

Skelton tapped his wooden gavel. “I formally request that those in the audience causing any disruption cease and never . . . resume it,” he said. But the warning went unheeded. At least five more times, seeming to realize they were safe from the hovering police, the protesters called out: “It’s the truth, sir!” they said about soldiers with combat stress. “You could try a cease-fire,” they commented on the Baghdad plan.

When Skelton scolded Gates and other officials for not knowing how much it cost per person to train Iraqi or U.S. soldiers, the protesters clapped. “No disturbance!” he said, tapping his gavel.

As Skelton left the hearing room, Medea Benjamin, a Code Pink founder, came up and shook his hand. “Thank you!” she said.

Asked about his tolerance for the protesters, Skelton’s spokeswoman, Lara Battles, said: “It’s a public hearing, and members of the public are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights as long as they don’t disrupt the hearing. People appeared to be complying.”

— Ann Scott Tyson

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