As the seat of the federal government, Washington, DC is unique. It’s where America comes to voice its opinion on a national stage, and it's where we can stand at the president's doorstep to let him (or someday, her) know how we feel. This right is enshrined in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
However, some proposed changes to the parks' permitting system could abridge that right. On Monday, October 15 the National Park Service (NPS) is closing comments on proposed guidelines that would change how people use the National Mall, the section of Pennsylvania Avenue right outside the White House, and several other public parks around DC.
If passed, special events (such as weddings or festivals, which people already pay for) and demonstrations (which require a permit, but at no cost) will no longer be considered different activities. That means people who want to protest in those areas would be charged a fee.
Right now, NPS is asking the public whether or not it should charge for First Amendment-related activities. So far, almost 37,000 comments have been logged — most of them against the proposal.
So, this is like a poll tax levied on our First Amendment, “… the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances?”— ��Batherine�� (@Katvanzan) October 11, 2018
Even alleged rogue staffers are getting involved:
The White House will no longer be a legal site for protests—unless you PROTEST NOW.— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) October 10, 2018
Demand that new NPS regulations against protesting near the White House be rejected. Public comment period closes on Oct 15.https://t.co/jQPGfC5Qnf
The changes sound reasonable, but they aren't
NPS stated that it's neither recommending charging a fee, nor suggesting that it should. It's only asking whether or not it's a good idea to charge in order recoup some of the costs from protests and rallies. Mike Litterst, a spokesperson for NPS, explained that “putting on or assisting with some of these larger First Amendment demonstrations” is, to say the least, expensive.
NPS argues that taxpayers aren't expected to cover the costs of special events like weddings and concerts, so why should they pay for constitutionally-guaranteed activities? Yes, it's expensive to provide police, fencing, restrooms, and cleanup for large-scale expressions of free speech. But, as some have pointed out, that's why we pay taxes.
Editorial Board member Dan Malouff says:
Democracy isn't democracy if everyone can't take part. This is not much different from the poll taxes that have been used to prevent poor people from voting in years past.
The basic costs of running a democracy are what your base taxes are supposed to pay for. Raise those if you have to, to pay for this. But it's not right for every individual function of government to have to pay a fee for itself, and freedom speech of all things is one that should not be split off as a separate line item.
The other reason for the changes, according to NPS, is to streamline and “clarify” a process that handles thousands of permit requests each year, which they said have increased in the last few years. The ACLU pointed out that the spike in requests is due to people seeking volleyball permits, not more protests.
Many point fingers at Trump; others say this tactic isn't new
Ben Wikler, Director of the Washington chapter of MoveOn, a progressive advocacy group, tweeted that this is an especially pernicious attempt by the Trump White House to curtail demonstrations and protests.
ALERT: The Trump administration has a plan to drastically curtail protests in DC, shutting down space in front of White House, charging massive fees, & banning stages & sound systems for rapid-response demonstrations. Deadline for comments? Monday, Oct 15: https://t.co/kCxYhMu8Rd— Ben Wikler (@benwikler) October 11, 2018
There is worry that the new rules will also render impossible the “rapid response” protests that have become more frequent during the Trump presidency.
Over and over in the Trump era, we've had to mobilize rapid-response protests in the space of a few hours. Permits for those protests, under current rules, are expedited in urgent situations. Trump's proposal would end this, requiring 48 hours. In Trump era, that's a lifetime.— Ben Wikler (@benwikler) October 11, 2018
Others point out that this isn't the first time NPS has raised the possibility of charging fees.
Look, this could be a direct attempt by Trump to curtail protests. But it's also consistent with the Park Service's trend in recent years to monetize their services and limit use. That predates Trump. https://t.co/8qt0PdxBxk— Ghosts aren't real and books about them are dumb (@timkrepp) October 11, 2018
Resident tour guide and curmudgeon Tim Krepp elaborated on his above tweet, telling me that:
In the last decade or so, the Park Service has increasingly been pushed to make the parks carry more of the financial freight. This is the kind of thing that sounds good in a sound bite, but has serious implications during implementation…
It's particularly troubling when it's applied to protests and other activities specifically protected by the Constitution. We've seen how seemingly reasonable poll taxes to cover the cost of elections have been used to disenfranchise people, and we should be just as leery of this attempt. I don't know to what extent this administration has been involved, but that's not the point. It's bad policy, no matter the administration.
Speaking of history…
It goes without saying that there is a history of Americans protesting in DC. History is marked by the sort of First Amendment demonstrations that have taken on the National Mall and in front of the White House.
In 1917, the suffragists engaged “in an American tradition that had been in existence since the nation’s founding: that of bringing the grievances of the citizenry directly to the chief executive at his home…'The People’s House.'” Martin Luther King's indelible “I have a dream” speech was also held on the National Mall. ACLU co-director Arthur Spitzer says that the fees would've made the march impossible.
As a DC history tour guide, I make a point of the honored tradition of protest in “President's Park,” now named for Lafayette, who crosses an ocean to fight for our right to democratic freedoms.— MizParse (@MizParse) October 13, 2018
Several of the historic marches that have taken place in the last few years would be affected under the new policy, including the Women's March, the March for Our Lives, the March for Science, numerous spontaneous protests against police brutality, a counter protest against Unite the Right, and others would be affected. The annual March for Life is another demonstration that would be reclassified under the policy changes.
Regardless of whether you agree with these movements or not, it is inarguable that the people use these spaces as important platforms for expression. Anything that would hinder that expression would simultaneously hinder our freedoms.
The formal public comment period ends today, October 15, but the agency will be discussing this issue in the coming weeks, so now is the time to make your concerns heard. You can fill out the official comment form here by 10/15, but it's also important that NPS staff feel the heat about this after the comment period closes, so click the button below to draft an email to the National Park Service now: Don’t put red tape around the National Mall or the White House!