When the Darcy Burner, Maria Cantwell, and Barack Obama campaigns scheduled a Thursday, October 26, event at Bellevue Community College (BCC), they thought the media would cover the candidates. Unfortunately for Cantwell and Burner, more than a dozen local and national media agencies instead wound up discussing the Republican students who weren't allowed to see them.
The day before the rally, a BCC official sent a campus-wide e-mail announcement saying students were "welcome to the event." On the day of, Justin Yates, a second-year legal-studies student at BCC, and four friends with canceled classes—some of whom were assigned to attend the speeches and write response papers on "Democratic Strategy"—waited for an hour to get into the event. They all proudly wore red Mike McGavick T-shirts, endorsing their candidate of choice. But when they reached the front of the long student line, a Cantwell staffer told them they couldn't come in—unless they ditched the Mike! shirts.
The students refused to turn their shirts inside out or remove them. In a decision that seems out of proportion to the danger of five community-college students in Republican T-shirts, the event staff wouldn't budge on the ban, saying they'd rented the school gym for a private event and could decide who to invite and exclude. The students stood talking first to Cantwell and Obama staffers, then school administration, for the entire duration of the Democrat's speeches. Eventually, Yates told the school he'd be taking legal action.
"They were clearly there to disrupt the event," explains Amanda Mahnke, Cantwell's campaign spokeswoman. Mahnke was not sure whether the shirts alone were disruptive or whether event campaign staff made the call thinking the students might shout at speakers. Either way, Yates says the "clearly disruptive" label is bunk—he and his friends were planning to sit and politely watch the speeches along with the rest of the crowd.
Within hours, Yates contacted several civil-liberties defense groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which met with BCC administration. "If someone rents college facilities, it can be for a private event. But in this situation, the college then issued an all-campus e-mail and that in essence turned it into a public forum," explains Doug Hoenig, communications director for the Washington ACLU. "We want to make sure that no one who was barred for their political views is penalized in any way academically."
Whether they end up taking legal action or not, Yates and his friends are skilled at snagging the media spotlight at a critical time for Cantwell. By Monday, October 30, at least 14 local and national media outlets (including MSNBC and Bill O'Reilly) had inquired about the occurrence. The friends also turned video footage of their interaction with staff, taken via one students digital camera, into a campy and well-edited YouTube video that ends on the perky note, "To be continued..."