Navy Violated Free Speech Rights of Vieques Protesters, ACLU Charges in Lawsuit

June 18, 2001 12:00 am

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SAN JUAN, PR–The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of peaceful crowds protesting the United States Navy’s bombing exercises on Vieques Island who were repeatedly assaulted with tear gas and rubber bullets by Naval personnel in riot gear.

“In a democracy, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets is not the answer to lawful protests,” said Janice Gutierrez Lacourt of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the ACLU, which filed the case in U.S. District Court here this afternoon.

“The Navy acted shamefully and illegally,” she said. “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.”

The ACLU is representing a priest, two nuns and four current and former Vieques residents who were tear-gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets and pellet-filled “impact bags” during April 27-29 at the Justice and Peace Camp outside the U.S. Naval base on the island.

The victims include a woman and her 11-year-old son, who was gassed along with dozens of other children and their parents while attending a clown show at the camp.

In legal papers, the ACLU said U.S. Naval officials “attempted to suppress a particular viewpoint, that of opposition to the Navy presence in Vieques,” and that they “have adopted a policy of zero restraint in the use of force in containing crowds of lawfully assembled protesters,” in direct violation of the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Mark J. Lopez, an ACLU national staff attorney, said the ACLU acted quickly to prevent further harm to protesters, who were scheduled to resume demonstrations today when the Navy bombing resumes for the next two weeks. Puerto Rico is seeking an end to the bombing, but President Bush recently announced that the exercises would not be halted until May 2003.

The Navy has conducted bombing exercises for over 60 years on Vieques, an island of approximately 9,400 residents that is part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The Justice and Peace Camp, located outside of the Navy’s Camp Garcia Military Reservation, was established in April 1999 as a permanent residence for protesters.

The ACLU lawsuit names Robert B. Pirie, Secretary of the U.S. Navy, and Rear Admiral Kevin Green, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Southern Command.

Lopez of the ACLU national office in New York and cooperating attorney Judith Berkan of San Juan are representing the demonstrators.

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