On The Front Lines
Denouncing Efforts to Insulate Government Officials From Constituents, Rutherford Institute Warns Against Plans to Limit Demonstrations in DC
WASHINGTON, DC — In public comments submitted to the National Park Service (NPS), The Rutherford Institute has denounced a proposal that would severely limit demonstrations in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall and in front of the White House, which have been the site of many historic protests, as well as require demonstrators to pay fees and acquire permits in order to exercise their lawful First Amendment rights. Pointing out that government officials have gone to great lengths in recent years to evade their contractual, constitutional duty to make themselves available to their constituents and hear their grievances, The Rutherford Institute warned that the proposed changes to the regulations on demonstrations in the National Capital pose a grave danger to First Amendment rights and should not be adopted.
“One of the key ingredients in a representative democracy is the right to freely speak our minds to those who represent us. In fact, it is one of the few effective tools ‘we the people’ have left to combat government corruption and demand accountability,” stated constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Yet these proposed restrictions limit the fundamental right of the people to engage in protest and expressive activities in Washington, D.C., the very place where their voices should be heard by government representatives who have been charged with heeding and carrying out the will of the people.”
Federal law grants the National Park Service the authority to manage and regulate over 1,000 acres of parkland within Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area, known as the National Capital Region. Among the areas within NPS control are the National Mall, which includes the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, and President’s Park, an area consisting of the White House and surrounding parklands. Although much of this area consists of parks and sidewalks which are traditionally open for citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights, the NPS has for many years restricted free speech activities within these areas, including requiring persons to obtain permits for demonstrations or special events. These restrictions have often been challenged as unconstitutional, but courts have generally upheld the NPS’ authority to restrict First Amendment activities in the National Capital Region on the basis of the special character of the regulated areas and the need to equitably allocate space to persons seeking to engage in expression in these areas. Since July 2018, protesters have gathered on a sidewalk in front of the White House to protest actions of the Trump administration, all in compliance with NPS rules.
On August 6, Rosie O’Donnell joined the protesters and led them in songs protesting “treason” and “fascism.” The very next day, the NPS issued a notice proposing to change the rules governing demonstrations in parts of the National Capital Region. The proposed changes included (1) closing portions of the White House sidewalk where protesters have been so that only a narrow 5-foot strip would be open to demonstrators, (2) proposing that demonstrators pay fees for the costs associated with their demonstrations, such as repairing grass and cleaning up trash, and (3) limiting a waiver of the permit requirement for spontaneous protests.
In weighing in on the proposed rule changes, The Rutherford Institute points out that the proposal to curtail protest activities would further erode the First Amendment rights of the people to engage in speech in traditional public forums.