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Charges pit free speech against highway safety

Naperville Sun | July 17, 2007
Jennifer Golz Staff writer

A Naperville environmental rights attorney has taken the case for two people he believes are being prosecuted for their political views.

Jeff Zurawski, 39, of Downers Grove and Sarah M. Hartfield, 45, of Naperville were initially charged with disorderly conduct for displaying a banner that read "Impeach Bush and Cheney - LIARS" on May 6 on the Great Western Trail above Interstate 355.

But more charges were brought against the two war protesters Monday in DuPage County Circuit Court in Wheaton: reckless conduct and unauthorized display of a sign in viewing of a highway, both misdemeanors.

The new charges each carry a penalty of up to one year imprisonment, while the original charge was up to a three-month sentence in the county jail.

"This is political prosecution," said Naperville attorney Shawn Collins, who has taken on Zurawski and Hartfield's case pro bono.

Spokesman for the state's attorney's office Paul Darrah said the charges are not for the content of Zurawski and Hartfield's banner but for the location.

"If you're driving along the highway at 55 mph, you need to pay attention to what's going on on the road, not necessarily above the road," Darrah said.

Alongside the banner hung an upside-down American flag, "to signal to our neighbors that we are in trouble because our leaders have lied to us," Zurawski said. "They have betrayed us."

Zurawski and Hartfield said they were leading a peaceful protest and were respectful when an Illinois State Trooper asked the two to take down the banner because it posed as a potential distraction.

Opposing ideologies The trouble allegedly began when three DuPage County Sheriff's deputies arrived on the scene as Zurawski and Hartfield were packing up their signs.

One of the deputies said a call was received that items were being thrown from the bridge, which both Zurawski and Hartfield deny.

"That would be senseless endangerment and destruction of innocent lives," Hartfield said. "I'm a peace activist and anyone who knows me knows I would never throw anything over the overpass, endangering someone's life."

During the course of their conversation with the deputies, one allegedly took a personal offense to the protest, citing his war veteran status and that of his son whom is currently serving in Afghanistan.

After providing their personal information to the deputies, Zurawski and Hartfield left the scene without a citation. It was three weeks later that arrest warrants were issued for each on the charge of disorderly conduct.

Now a month later, the charges have been upgraded.

Collins has asked for a jury trial for his clients.

"The people of DuPage County will see this for what it is," he said. "Even if they disagree with what Jeff and Sarah believe, they want this to be a county and a country where Jeff and Sarah are free to express their beliefs."

Zurawski and Hartfield are due in court July 30 when a trial date is expected to be set.

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