Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
Dwight Scarbrough used to be in the Navy. He was a machinist on submarines, some of them nuclear, in the Pacific from 1975-1980.
Now he heads up the Vets for Peace chapter in Boise, Idaho.
And he’s not shy about expressing his opinion.
At any given time, he may have as many as ten bumperstickers or peace signs on every conceivable spot of his truck.
He usually doesn’t get hassled, he tells me.
But then, on February 7, at his day job for a federal natural resource agency, Scarbrough got a call from, of all places, Homeland Security.
An official told him to come out to the parking lot and said he was in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations.
When Scarbrough came out, he found two armed officers of Homeland Security, who told him he was violating the regulation against the posting of signs on federal property.
(Scarbrough, fearing trouble, brought a tape recorder along and taped the entire confrontation. You can read a transcript at the Boise Weekly, which broke the story on February 15 in an excellent article by Nicholas Collias.)
Scarbrough tried to point out that those signs were not on federal property but on his own private property—his personal truck.
And by the way, the signs were really subversive, like “Honor Vets, Wage Peace,” and “Another Veteran Against War with Iraq.”
“Sir, you’ve got signs posted on your vehicle. I’m informing you that you’re in violation,” one officer told him, according to the transcript.
Scarbrough: “That’s not illegal. That’s not illegal.”
When Scarbrough accused them of harassment, they continued to demand that he remove the signs or be cited for a violation.
“You know this is BS,” Scarbrough told them. “So any vehicle that comes on with, like a police sign, or with delivery or FedEx or something, that’s not a sign?”
To which the officer replied: “All signs are prohibited.”
“It’s crap and you know it,” Scarbrough said.
Rather than risk getting a citation, and rather than tear the bumperstickers and signs down, Scarbrough moved his truck out of the parking lot.
“I was pretty angry about it,” he says.
The next day, Scarbrough says he “drove around the parking lot and took pictures of about forty vehicles that had signs of them.”
According to Scarbrough, some of the signs said, “My Dad Is a Marine,” and “Support the Troops.”
“I wanted to make the point that if they were going to apply the law equally, they were going to have to tell everybody that they had to peel off their signs,” he explains. “This was an obvious attempt to suppress my right to free speech.”
Scarbrough contacted the local ACLU, which found him an attorney, Michael Bartlett of the prestigious law firm Nevin, Benjamin, and McKay.
“My jaw dropped,” Bartlett says, when he heard what had happened to Scarbrough. “These are the kinds of political statements most protected under our Constitution.”
Bartlett has offered to represent Scarbrough pro bono, but there appears to be no need to just yet.
Scarbrough has since returned to work, and to the parking lot, with signs and stickers on his truck bumper and doors.
And he hasn’t been hassled again.
“I suspect nothing will happen,” Bartlett says. “This is such a clear violation of the law he’s probably going to be left alone.”
He applauds Scarbrough for piping up, though. “Dwight is a great example of a good American who is not only willing to express his right to free speech but is willing to stand up for it,” Bartlett says. “We should be proud of him for that.”
Neither the federal Department of Homeland Security nor the Idaho branch could help clear up what happened.
“It’s not anyone I represent,” says Lt. Col. Stephanie Dowling, public affairs officer for the Idaho Military Division, which, she says, “includes the Idaho State Bureau of Homeland Security. We’re the emergency management agency. We do floods, and work with FEMA, and all of that. It certainly wasn’t the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security.”
The press office for the federal Department of Homeland Security did not return phone calls for comment.
Back at work, with his adorned truck in the federal parking lot, Scarbrough seems to be doing just fine.
“One of my co-workers’ wives made a cake for me with a pick-up truck and signs on it,” he says. “That tells you the sentiment around here.”