In 2018, at the same time the Trump administration and other proponents of bigotry, repression, and environmental devastation ratcheted up their verbal attacks against a protest against them, they took concrete actions to match their rhetoric and sought to shut down free speech actions in Washington, D.C. The PCJF took immediate action in rapid response to this initiative to block the Trump administration’s efforts to repress and silence the voices of the people who speak out in opposition and protest.
In an extraordinary victory for the people, the Trump Administration was forced to fully withdraw its massive anti-democratic plan to block free speech and assembly through proposed regulations that would have eviscerated protest on federal land in the nation’s capital.
As the PCJF was preparing to meet the Trump Administration head on in court to challenge the regulations as unconstitutional, the Trump-led National Park Service (NPS) announced they could not surmount the public and legal opposition they faced and would not move forward with their plans, withdrawing them in their entirety.
The proposed regulations would have criminalized and restricted fundamental First Amendment rights. Trump’s plan would have made people pay for the right to protest. They planned to charge people for the right to demonstrate on our public spaces including costs and fees so high that no grassroots group could ever afford to do so. They planned to make the iconic White House sidewalk to protest off limits. They planned to enact new restrictions and waiting periods for permit applications that would make it impossible to organize a demonstration, including eliminating the 24-hour “deemed granted” rule. They planned to ban any sustained vigil or protest forcing evictions at 30 days. Had this plan succeeded, it would have been a model for repressive regulations and legislation nationwide.
We first exposed Trump’s new plan with a line-by-line legal analysis of his proposed rules and sounded the alarm, including through an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “The Trump Administration Wants to Tax Protests. What Happened to Free Speech?” written by PCJF’s Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo.
In rapid-response, PCJF then led a national organizing, education, and outreach campaign bringing together organizations and grassroots groups across the country in opposition and providing a breakdown of the nearly 100-page proposal available for public dissemination, as well as a platform for the submission of comments.
This broad coalition included organizations that focus on different struggles and communities but who joined together in a robust, collective, and uncompromising defense of fundamental First Amendment rights upon which all of us rely. This included civil rights, labor, climate justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ, immigration rights, and anti-war organizations, among many others. This initiative and the principled, united coalition work resulted an astounding response from the public — more than 140,000 comments were submitted into the formal rule-making record.
The PCJF used the comment process to build the administrative record on which the case would be litigated, including submitting substantive legal challenges and affidavits into the record that addressed myriad parts of the Trump proposal, as well as dozens of iconic protest images and videos. Among the affidavits in the record were ones from Cleve Jones, the organizer behind the concept and the display of the AIDS Quilt; Kim Propeack of CASA, the immigrant rights organization; Brian Becker of the Act Now to Stop War & End Racism Coalition; and John Boardman of UNITE HERE Local 25, all of whom have vast experience organizing protests on federal land in Washington, D.C. and could speak directly to the material and unconstitutional impact different components of the proposed regulations would have on the capacity of people to exercise their First Amendment rights.
This is the administrative record that the administration was not able to overcome and which forced it to withdraw its regulatory proposal in its entirety.
The regulations proposed by the Trump administration would have:
- imposed steep fees and costs on demonstrations in Washington, D.C.
- effectively banned protests on the iconic White House sidewalk
- forced protesters to pay the costs of barricades erected at police discretion, park ranger wages and overtime, and harm to grass from standing on it
- created waiting periods removing any obligation of the government to promptly process or approve permits and eliminating the current 24 hour “deemed granted” rule
- restricted and suppressed spontaneous demonstrations that respond to breaking events
- created hair-triggers that allow police to end protests for the most minor of issues
- restricted sound and staging
- banned long-term vigils or protest presences criminalizing protests that last more than 30 days
- made protesters pay for expensive “turf covers,” among many other radical restrictions of free speech rights
These changes would have affected all parkland under the NPS in the nation’s capital, including the National Mall, Lafayette Park, the White House Sidewalk, Lincoln Memorial, the Ellipse, Freedom Plaza, and the sidewalks and parkland along Pennsylvania Avenue.
12 Ways Trump’s New Rules Would Have Crushed Free Speech in D.C.
As soon as they were released, the PCJF analyzed the almost 100-page proposal from the NPS, highlighting twelve major threatened losses to free speech rights, and published our analysis of the regulations to provide affected groups and organizations a summary of key regulatory proposals.
- Pay to Protest – – Part I. NPS to charge steep costs and fees on any demonstration activity.
- Pay to Protest, part 2 – – NPS to deconstruct free speech activities and charge fees and costs on “special event elements” (i.e., music performances, exhibits) within a demonstration. Removal of the distinct protections and processing of demonstrations in order to treat them in part like corporate sponsored and commercial special events. This is a back-door way to assess prohibitive costs on protests.
- Permits in Limbo and Suppression of Spontaneous Demonstrations – – Removal of the “24 Hour Deemed Granted Rule” that mandates swift action on applications and elimination of any deadline whatsoever for NPS to finally approve a permit application. Spontaneous demonstrations responding to breaking events can be stifled.
- Closure of the iconic White House sidewalks to demonstration assemblies (leaving a five foot sliver for a pedestrian walkway)
- Closure of other public spaces on the South side of White House
- New Hair-Trigger to Shut Down Protests – – Allowing police to end a protest for any violation of a permit, no matter how inconsequential, by anyone (even a counter-protester)
- Protecting Grass Over Free Speech – – Codifies the Turf Management Plan with its prohibitively expensive requirements, including forced rental of mega-expensive plastic “Turf Covers” so protester’s feet don’t touch the grass
- Ends Long Term Vigils and Protest Presences – – by setting a maximum period of 30 days, or less, for a protest (the current maximum is four months)
- Expands the strictest restrictions on signs and banner size and material
- Prohibits structures (e.g., stage, fixed sound) within the drop line of trees in Lafayette Park or the Ellipse – – but Lafayette Park is filled with trees
- Prohibits structures (i.e., stage and sound setup or literature tables) without a permit, including in parks for which no permit is needed to have a demonstration [How can protesters use a no-permit-needed park for an assembly without stage or sound to reach the protest?]
- NPS also seeks comment on whether to decrease or increase the number of people, and parks, in which protest is allowed without any permit at all (i.e., Franklin Square, McPherson Park, potentially Dupont Circle, and more). Apparently, NPS thinks even fewer no-permit-needed spaces are a possibility.
Washington Post editorial “A victory for free speech on the Mall” calls the total withdrawal of proposed anti-protest regulations: “a full retreat by the Trump administration and, more important, a victory for the First Amendment.” “Their plan to suppress protest,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, “was met with the very force it was trying to suppress.”
The White House is now—via the National Park Service—seeking to squelch public protest in Washington, DC, by, yes, charging for it.
Courthouse News Service: Trump Planning Tough New Rules for Protests Near White House. “Nearly all are registering outrage and opposition to this radical rollback of free speech rights. We view this as a full scale attack on constitutional rights, that’s why we’ve launched a campaign to defend them.” — Carl Messineo, PCJF Legal Director