The Trump administration has proposed dramatic limitations to Americans’ right to demonstrate outside the White House and on the Nation Mall, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The proposal includes closing 80 percent of the White House sidewalk, limits spontaneous demonstrations and opens the opportunity for charging fees to protesters.
Some of these measures violate court orders that have stood for decades, the ACLU said.
> In 1967, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the federal government tried to impose severe limits on protests near the White House. The ACLU of the District of Columbia sued, and after years of litigation, the courts rebuffed the government’s effort and reminded the National Park Service, which administers these areas, that Lafayette Park is not Yellowstone and that the White House area and the National Mall “constitute a unique [site] for the exercise of First Amendment rights.” Under court orders, the park service issued regulations allowing large demonstrations, guaranteeing quick action on applications for permits, and accommodating spontaneous protests as much as possible.
What are some specifics of the Trump administration’s proposal?
Closing the White House sidewalk
> The park service plans to close 20 feet of the 25-foot-wide White House sidewalk, limiting demonstrators to a 5-foot sliver along Pennsylvania Avenue. This is perhaps the most iconic public forum in America, allowing “We the People” to express our views directly to the chief executive, going back at least to the women’s suffrage movement 100 years ago.
> The closure would violate the earlier court order, which permits demonstrations by at least 750 people on the White House sidewalk and declares that any lower limit is “invalid and void as an unconstitutional infringement of plaintiffs’ rights to freedom of speech and to assemble peaceably and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Further, should the park service claim security as the rationale for closing the majority of the sidewalk, Secret Service already has plans to modernize the fence with a “new, taller fence with special anti-climbing features, approved last year specifically to “meet contemporary security standards” while allowing the sidewalk to remain open.”
> As the Secret Service stated when the plans for the new fence were submitted for approval, “Our priority is to maintain the public’s access ... It is in fact a quintessential First Amendment site.” The Secret Service got it right. The park service proposal has no valid basis in security — it’s just an effort to keep the pesky protesters away.
Charging for free speech
The ACLU said the proposal includes the possibility of charging demonstrators for “sanitation and trash removal” and “harm to turf” — fees the park service does not charge to the 45 million non-protesters who visit the National Mall each year.
> Park service regulations distinguish between demonstrations and “special events” — things like sports events, historical reenactments, and festivals. The park service has always charged for the costs of special events, but it now claims that some demonstrations have “elements that are special events” and that it is free to charge “administrative, equipment, and monitoring costs” for those “elements.” The proposal gives no clue about what those “elements” may be, but the courts have made clear that things like singing, dancing, and music in the context of demonstrations are fully protected by the First Amendment. Such “elements” shouldn’t make a demonstration subject to fees.
Limiting spontaneous demonstrations
> The right to protest now in response to unfolding events is a key part of freedom of speech. As Judge J. Skelly Wright recognized in the ACLU-DC lawsuit against the 1967 restrictions, “Timeliness is essential to effective dissent. Delay may stifle protest as effectively as outright censorship.”
> In general, people must apply for National Park Service demonstration permits 48 hours in advance. But that requirement can be waived in urgent situations. Current regulations provide that the park service will accommodate spontaneous demonstrations if necessary resources and personnel “can reasonably be made available.”
The Trump administration proposal changes this wording to “provided the NPS has the resources and personnel available to manage the activity” (emphasis added).
> In addition to these lowlights, there are many other serious problems with the government’s proposed changes, which we detail in our written comments. The heart of the matter is clear: President Trump might not like having protesters on his doorstep, but the First Amendment guarantees their right to be there.