Did a federal agent ban anti-Bush signs in downtown storefronts?


SIGNING ON “The man who called was very polite and nice,” says John Gasquet, owner of Empire coffee at 2 N. Main in Downtown Memphis. “He said he was special agent Something-or-other. He said that due to the fact that in some states the President had been to, there were issues of security regarding area businesses, he was calling businesses to tell them not to put up any negative signs in their windows that were negative toward President Bush. He said there were designated areas of protest and this would cut down on the possibility of problems.”

Gasquet didn’t have any negative signs in his window, and he hadn’t been planning on posting any signs at all. As a businessman--about to pass his business off to new owners--it didn’t seem logical to post material that might antagonize half his clientele.

“I thought sure, okay. Fine. But then it started to irritate me. I’m a veteran. I’ve served my country. I was happy to do it and I would do it again. And it bugged me that someone from the Federal Government would try to tell me not to do this.”

As Gasquet understood it, his job as a soldier had been to defend the Constitution, not a pet policy of this or any administration. By his estimation the first amendment under attack. He wanted to make and post a sign that showed respect for the office of President, but still got the message across.

The sign Gasquet posted notified customers that Empire had been contacted by a federal agent and told not to display any anti-Bush signage. In smaller letters it said, “We would like to remind the agent of our first amendment rights.” No action was taken against Empire coffee for displaying the sign, and the authenticity of the caller is still in question.

Customers who saw Gasquet’s sign started telling him that other businesses in the area had been contacted and given similar instructions. No other local incidents have been confirmed at this time. After information concerning the call broke on the Internet on Saturday morning Empire received a call from another business owner in Alabama who had been contacted by "the feds."

“This was one of four things,” Gasquet says. “It was either a federal agent acting in an official capacity. It could have been an agent acting in an unofficial capacity--a cowboy. It might have been an enthusiastic Bush supporter or somebody from the right side of the political spectrum who really thought he was trying to make things better for the President. Or it could have even been someone on the Left trying to agitate.”

Gasquet and others who have received similar calls will be discussing their polite, but unnerving calls with Sam Seder (sitting in for Randi Rhodes) on Monday afternoon. Gasquet has also been interviewed by NPR, and Salon.

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