Reprint from Courthouse News Service
WASHINGTON (CN) – A proposal by the National Parks Service that could limit protests near iconic landmarks in the nation’s capital is drawing heavy criticism as the window for the public to comment on the matter is set to close Monday.
The proposal, first introduced in August, would restrict protests at memorials along the mall “to preserve an atmosphere of contemplation,” and would close a large portion of the sidewalk north of the White House to demonstrations.
It could also limit the size of spontaneous protests, and impose fees for permits to allow the National Parks Service “to recover some of the costs of administering permitted activities that contain protected speech.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a blog post Tuesday that the administration is trying to stifle protests, suggesting that the end result could foreclose the possibility of events akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington.
The legal director of Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, Carl Messineo, echoed that sentiment Friday, calling the proposal “outrageous” in a phone interview.
“Every type of movement has come and used these spaces to get their message to the president, and to the world at large,” Messineo said. “The idea that they’re going to shut them down is outrageous.”
Earlier this week the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund spearheaded a campaign urging the public to submit comments before the 60-day comment period closes on Oct. 15.
According to Messineo, the proposal had drawn about 1,300 comments at the start of the public interest legal organization’s campaign. As of press time Friday there were 7,623 comments, most of which Messineo characterized as being opposed to the proposal.
“Nearly all are registering outrage and opposition to this radical rollback of free speech rights,” he said. “We view this as a full scale attack on constitutional rights, that’s why we’ve launched a campaign to defend them.”
Courthouse News reviewed the 25 most recent comments, all of which expressed opposition to the proposal.
Calling it anti-democratic and a major reversal of longstanding federal policy, Messineo said if the proposal passes it would mark the first time in history the government has charged protestors.
“The thrust of our message is clear, free speech is not free if you have to pay for it,” Messineo said.
The National Park Service meanwhile says the proposed changes are intended “to provide greater clarity to the public about how and where demonstrations and special events may be conducted in a manner that protects and preserves the cultural and historic integrity of these areas.”
The National Park Service did not immediately respond to an email and voice message seeking a response to some of the criticism being levied against the proposal.