Deal in offing for war protesters?

Community service reportedly proposed

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Protesters arrested during a raucous anti-war demonstration in Williston could have charges against them dropped in exchange for completing community service, according to one of the protesters.

The deal was offered by Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan before protesters were due to appear in court earlier this month, said Matt Howard, one of 13 people arrested on trespassing charges during the Nov. 30, 2007 demonstration.

Howard said he was present for the pre-hearing talk with Donovan, who addressed defendants just before the Jan. 7 court session commenced. Charges against Howard, a former Marine who served in Iraq, and one other protester were later dismissed by the judge because their information was missing on an affidavit.

Donovan confirmed that snafu but declined to provide details about the deal other than to say he made an offer that the defendants are still considering.

"My rules of professional responsibility don't allow me to discuss negotiations," he said.

Howard's account of the deal could not be confirmed with other sources. Several protesters contacted for this story did not return phone messages.

The demonstration targeted two military recruiting offices in Maple Tree Place. It was organized by students at Mount Mansfield Union High School to protest recruitment in schools but also attracted adults who oppose the Iraq war.

About 75 participants first marched to the combined U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine recruiting office at the shopping center. But after finding it closed, demonstrators drifted over to the nearby Vermont Army National Guard office.

Protesters at first massed in front of the building, brandishing signs and shouting slogans. Then many of the participants entered the recruiting office.

Some harangued military personnel while others sat in a circle on the floor. Police eventually told them to leave or be arrested. Thirteen refused and were cited for trespassing.

The proposed deal for protesters was first reported by Peter Freyne in his "Inside Track" column published in the Jan. 16 edition of Seven Days. Freyne, citing unnamed sources, said protesters were told charges would be dropped if they agreed to 15 hours of community service or a charitable donation of $50 to $100.

Howard said the Seven Days account was accurate except for the charitable donation, which he said was not part of the deal.

Donovan was sympathetic to the protesters' cause during the pre-court meeting, according to Howard. He said that Donovan, a Democrat elected in 2006, was even willing to let anti-war activities count toward the proposed community service.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Donovan seemed less tolerant of the protesters' tactics.

He said some sort of penalty was in order as he tries to balance the protesters' free speech rights and the rights of recruiters and the general public to go about their business.

"The law has to be enforced," Donovan said. "With that comes my exercise of discretion in my role as state's attorney."

Under Vermont law, trespassing is punishable by three months in jail and/or a $500 fine.

Donovan said he considers several factors when determining the appropriate punishment for protesters. He looks at whether a protest involved violence, caused property damage or impeded business.

He said the protest clearly disrupted the recruiting office and blocked traffic. Donovan, who traveled to Williston to see the protest for himself, said a potential recruit who was visiting the National Guard office that day was harassed.

"For me, that crossed the line," he said.

James Marc Leas, a South Burlington lawyer who participated in the protest but was not arrested, said having the charges dropped could be considered a "victory" for demonstrators. But he thought government officials such as military recruiters have an obligation to listen before police are called in.

"We should have the right to petition our government officials … We should not have to go as far as being arrested to be heard," Leas said.

Donovan acknowledged the protesters' right to voice their views, but he added that there are limits.

"Freedom of speech is not an absolute right," Donovan said. "You can regulate the time, manner and place of the speech."

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Feb. 4. Donovan said his offer remains on the table until then.