After consistent protest outside the White House during Donald Trump’s presidency, the National Park Service proposed limits on demonstrations there and in other iconic Washington venues, including the National Mall. Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, pushed back, arguing that such restrictions are unconstitutional.
Protests outside the White House have been frequent during Trump’s presidency, and grew even more common after his July 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Protesters occupied the sidewalks outside the White House for at least three weeks after the summit, according to The Washington Post, and used the opportunity to attempt to hold Trump accountable on a range of issues.
In August 2018, the National Park Service (NPS) — housed in the Department of the Interior — proposed to limit the number of protests on the north sidewalk in front of the White House, the National Mall, Lafayette Square, and the sidewalk in front of the Trump International Hotel, among other places, according to Fortune.
The proposal would close 80 percent of the sidewalks around the White House to demonstrations, according to The Guardian, limiting them to a five-foot-wide section on Pennsylvania Avenue. The proposed policy would also open the door to requiring protestors to pay “event management” fees to cover the cost of barriers, cleanup, and necessary security personnel.
The aim, in part, is also to “preserve an atmosphere of contemplation” around national memorials, according to Fortune, as well as to protect the grass on the Mall. Additionally, the proposed policy would allow the NPS greater time to work out logistics before granting event permits, Fortune reported, which would limit spontaneous demonstrations.
The proposed limits on demonstration come amid Trump’s historical antipathy to protest. In the past, Trump has suggested that those who protest against him are paid by prominent Democratic Party donors, as he wrote in a Oct. 5 tweet during the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh:
“The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad,” Trump wrote. “Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others” (an allusion to financier George Soros, the object of many conspiracy theories circulating on social media about the origins of anti-Trump protests).
Trump has also said in the past that protesting should be illegal, according to the Washington Post.
“I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters,” Trump said in a Sept. 4 Oval Office interview. “You don’t even know what side the protesters are on.”
Proposal to limit protest faces backlash
The NPS faced backlash on the proposed policy, particularly from critics who saw it as an infringement on Free Speech. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out that such restrictions have the ability to hamper demonstrations by raising costs.
“Managing public lands for the benefit of the American people” — whether demonstrators or tourists — “is what Congress funds the National Park Service to do,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, in a post on the ACLU’s blog. “While the Park Service may be strapped for funds, it cannot balance its budget on the backs of people seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.”
The ACLU also cited the numerous historic protests that have occurred in these spaces. New limitations “could make mass protests like Martin Luther King Jr’s historic 1963 March on Washington and its ‘I have a dream’ speech too expensive to happen,” Spitzer wrote.
NPS hosted a 60-day public comment period, which ran until Oct. 15 and drew more than 41,000 responses, according to the Washington Post. A spokesman for NPS said it could take several months to finish a report on public sentiment and reaction. The ACLU submitted a formal complaint as well, arguing that the proposal violates the First Amendment.
“We’re just looking to have a genuine conversation with the public about updating this comprehensive plan,” NPS spokesperson Brent Everitt said, according to the Post.
Constitutional experts have said the proposed policy would likely not be upheld if challenged in court, because of its potentially chilling effect on people’s exercise of their First Amendment rights, the Post reported.
“President Trump might not like having protesters on his doorstep, but the First Amendment guarantees their right to be there,” Spitzer wrote.
Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20
Uploaded November 4, 2018