Little is more important for the defense of Free Speech and the First Amendment than the right of the people to gain access to public spaces to assemble for the exercise of dissent. Especially when the space is the National Mall, the site of some of the most meaningful mass assembly protests in U.S. history.
When we alerted you last year to take action to Defend Free Speech Rights on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., more than 16,500 people responded by writing emails and letters telling the government and the National Park Service (NPS) that there should be a moratorium on any plans to restrict access to the mall.
You raised clear collective demands: No new restrictions on free speech or protest on the Mall. No government-designated protest pits or zones.
To place this in perspective: There were 18,000 comments on the proposals for the National Mall. Your responses, focusing on the grave threats posed to mass political assembly in the heart of the Nation's Capital, constituted over 91% of the total comments received.
The National Park Service has responded by releasing its "Preliminary Preferred Alternative" plan for the reorganization of the National Mall.
How does the Park Service respond to these clear demands? Does it pledge no new restrictions on protest or free speech on the Mall? Hardly.
The NPS responded with the double-speak of polished politicians. The NPS revamped the language on its website to dismiss all those who filed comments supporting free speech as suffering from a “misunderstanding.”
The NPS responded by saying that no matter what it does, “First Amendment rights will not change.” Of course, First Amendment rights will not change. Those are inalienable rights. Those are our rights.
The NPS asserts that the First Amendment allows the Park Service to impose restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech and assembly on the Mall.
Clearly, the misunderstanding is theirs.
The demand was not for constitutional rights in the abstract. The demand was that the NPS not impose any new restrictions on the ability of persons to use and assemble upon the Mall for free speech and dissent.
Now, it’s time again to make your voices heard.
Sweeping aside the earlier groundswell of comments insisting on no new demonstration restrictions, the Park Service has opened up a new comment period that will close tomorrow, Friday May 15, 2009.
The government’s vague new proposal is cause for concern. We need you to act now, to submit your comment to the NPS that you support the simple demand that the NPS must guarantee that its reorganization of the National Mall would not increase in any way, shape or form the “time, place and manner restrictions” for those using the National Mallfor First Amendment activities.
We need thousands of people to join together in making clear that the government cannot use the excuse of beautifying the National Mall or protecting the grass to establish a partnership with commercial corporate entities and fundamentally change the use of the National Mall for “We the People.”
Write to the National Park Service. Tell them you want them to implement the 8 Point Plan to Protect Free Speech and Dissent on the National Mall.
Unless we act now, the National Mall will be reorganized for the benefit of commercial interests. The Plan is alarmingly vague and it is clear that the NPS thinks that Free Speech can be tokenized, patted on the head and turned into a harmless decoration by a series of specific management measures that are undisclosed now but can severely restrict access for those engaging in dissent
The PCJF obtained internal documents through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) demands and a lawsuit. These documents reveal that while the government considers those who have commercial and business interests to be "stakeholders" in the future of the National Mall, those who are advocating for Free Speech rights on the Mall are not invited or consulted.
The groups who have brought hundreds of thousands of people to petition the government for redress of grievances - not invited.
Who was invited by the government into the planning process? The list includes the Tourmobile Corporation, the Board of Trade, the Chamber of Commerce, the Guest Services company, real estate consultants, and the sales and marketing consultant for the Hard Rock Cafe.
To receive the support of the people, any new National Mall Plan must guarantee the following:
The 8 Point Plan to Protect Free Speech on the National Mall
1) No new restrictions on the time, place or manner of use of the National Mall for demonstration activity.
2) No new obstacles to the contiguity of space: no new fencing or walls or other obstacles that would or break up the continuous use of the length of the Mall for large, mass demonstrations.
3) No new restrictions that would reduce the ability to use staging. For example, versions of the Mall plan have included proposed prohibition on banners or staging that would “interfere” with the line of sight to the U.S. Capitol and include paved "protest pits" where protestors will be urged to assemble.
4) No new restrictions on use of sound, including no new volume limitations and no new rules limiting the direction that speakers may point or direct sound.
5) No restrictions on the size of demonstrations.
6) No restrictions on frequency of demonstrations.
7) No restrictions imposing a “maximum” number of demonstrations in a given period of time; no new restrictions imposing an across-the-board maximum number of large events on the Mall that would restrict or limit demonstrations.
8) No “black out” periods. No restrictions on back-to-back or multiple-day events, and no new restrictions imposing a “black out” or “turf rehabilitation” period that would bar/restrict demonstrations from occurring close in time to other large events using the Mall.
Thank you for taking action to defend free speech rights.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo
attorneys and co-founders, PCJF