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Capitol police red-faced over T-shirt tussle

By James Kuhnhenn   
Knight Ridder

The chief of the Capitol Police on Wednesday dropped a charge of unlawful conduct against anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and apologized for ejecting her and the wife of an influential Republican congressman from the State of the Union address for wearing T-shirts with war messages.

``The officers made a good faith, but mistaken effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol. The policy and procedures were too vague,'' said Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer in a statement.

``The failure to adequately prepare the officers is mine,'' he said.

Before President Bush entered the House chamber Tuesday, officers escorted Sheehan, of Berkeley, out of her seat in the House gallery for wearing a T-shirt with ``2,245 Dead. How many more?''

Later, while Bush was speaking, officers spotted Beverly Young, wife of Florida Republican Rep. Bill Young, who was sitting six seats away from first lady Laura Bush and wearing a ``Support our Troops'' shirt. They ushered her out as well.

Young said she angrily challenged officers to explain what law she had violated, and they threatened arrest.

Young said an officer mentioned that Sheehan was removed earlier and therefore ``it was kind of only fair'' that she be asked to leave, too.

Sheehan was charged with a misdemeanor. Young was not charged.

``Neither guest should have been confronted about the expressive T-shirts,'' Gainer's statement said.

The two women appeared to have offended tradition if not the law, according to several law enforcement and congressional officials. By custom, the annual address is to be a dignified affair in which the president reports on the state of the nation. Guests in the gallery who wear shirts deemed political in nature have, in past years, been asked to change or cover them up.

Young's treatment prompted a call from her husband to Gainer and an angry denunciation from the House floor Wednesday.

``I had two lawyers spend all morning looking at the law and at the rules, and we came up with absolutely nothing on which they could base what they did,'' the congressman said.

Gainer said he met with Bill Young, a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, and his wife to apologize and said he would take steps to avoid similar episodes.

He said he left a similar message with Sheehan. He also asked the U.S. attorney's office to drop charges against Sheehan.

Beverly Young, who regularly visits wounded soldiers, said she ``was treated like a criminal.''

Meanwhile, Democrats also objected to Sheehan's treatment.

Writing on her Web log, Sheehan said she obtained a ticket to the speech from Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Santa Rosa, but initially had been reluctant to attend.

``I knew George Bush would say things that would hurt me and anger me, and I knew that I couldn't disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket, and I didn't want to be disruptive out of respect for her,'' wrote Sheehan, who blames Bush for the death of her soldier son, Casey, in Iraq.

She said she took off her jacket because she was warm and at that moment a police officer yelled ``protester'' and ordered her out of the gallery.

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