Complaint argues that the Bush Administration is illegally withholding documents
A lawsuit filed in federal court today argues that the Bush Administration is illegally withholding documents in an effort to suppress public opposition to the Administration’s plans to obstruct and restrict First Amendment activities on the National Mall.
The Bush Administration is involved in a radical transformation of the National Mall, the site of the largest protests in U.S. history. Using the model of the Central Park Conservancy in New York, the Administration is creating a so-called public-private trust and new National Mall Plan that seek to profoundly limit free speech demonstrations and other protests in Washington, D.C. according to the Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJ).
The Underlying Issue
The lawsuit, filed by the PCJ in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), demands the release of information regarding use of the National Mall for free speech events that is being withheld by the Department of the Interior and its National Park Service (NPS) in violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“The Bush Administration and the National Park Service is involved in a smoke and mirrors public relations game. While insisting that they have a transparent process, their failure to release these records is the clearest sign that they intend to ram through their plan which will fundamentally privatize the National Mall and limit, obstruct or banish free speech protests,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder and attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice.
“Their real intention is to create protest pits and ‘speakers corners’ while transforming this cherished public land into a vessel for corporate sponsorship,” stated Carl Messineo, co-founder and attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice. “They support running the National Mall like a Disney theme park. The right to protest was not a gift by politicians or real estate developers, it is a hard won civil liberty achieved by the struggle of earlier generations. In the name of making the National Mall ‘better’ the Bush Administration intends to eviscerate these cherished rights. The withholding of these records is an effort to shut out those who have used the Mall for free speech protests and may be unaware of the radical plan to limit free speech rights in the future,” stated Mr. Messineo.
Central Park Plan Was Unconstitutional
The National Park Service’s new initiative is similar to that launched to exclude protests from New York City’s Great Lawn. It will be used to further restrict or ban protest on the Mall from current levels. This is a component of a nationwide campaign of corporate-sponsored organizations working in partnership with government entities that claim that protests, rallies and demonstrations harm grass or “green space” or “natural resources” and must therefore be restricted or banned or shunted off to designated protest pits.
A lawsuit filed by the Partnership for Civil Justice on behalf of the National Council of Arab Americans and the ANSWER Coalition successfully overturned regulations in New York City that were used to prevent mass assembly protest in the Great Lawn of Central Park during the Republican National Convention. Those planning to reduce access to the National Mall have stated that they see New York City’s Great Lawn policies and its Central Park Conservancy as a model for their activities.
The Records Withheld
At a January 12, 2008 public meeting on the future of the National Mall, NPS representatives conceded that they had made no effort at outreach to the 1,500 permittees who use the National Mall every single year for First Amendment protected demonstrations. They further added that they did not intend to do so, but suggested that others should feel free to let interested parties know about the NPS plans. The ANSWER Coalition then filed a FOIA request seeking the publicly available information regarding demonstration permit recipients, which the DOI and NPS are refusing to provide. At the January 12, 2008 meeting, the Executive Director for the Trust for the National Mall, a private entity authorized by the NPS to partner in its stewardship of the National Mall, stated that she had made significant efforts at outreach as she had sent a message to the email list for the Washington DC Board of Trade.
Tens of Thousands Have Registered Opposition to Bush’s Plans
“The National Mall has been associated for decades as the site for mass assembly protest and gatherings,” stated Brian Becker, National Coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition. “On January 18, 2003, the ANSWER Coalition organized a demonstration of 500,000 prior to the invasion of Iraq. The Nation of Islam led the Million Man March in 1995 on the Mall. The National Organization for Women sponsored the March for Women’s Lives bringing more than a million people to the Mall in 2004. A huge gathering for immigrant rights took place on the Mall in 2006 as part of a nation-wide outpouring. From the Bonus Marchers of the early 1930s, to Dr. King’s Poor People’s March of 1968, and the anti-war Moratorium of 1969, the Mall is the historic anchor for the exercise of free speech rights in the United States. The people of the United States will not relinquish this cherished right,” stated Mr. Becker.
The Partnership for Civil Justice’s Campaign in Defense of Free Speech Rights on the National Mall has generated tens of thousands of letters to the National Park Service, dwarfing the NPS’s own limited outreach, and PCJ’s public sign-on statement has gained support across the country including from prominent individuals such as Howard Zinn, Cindy Sheehan, Ramsey Clark, Malik Rahim, Ed Asner and others.
Click below to download a copy of the complaint.