The Trump administration is proposing to dramatically limit the right to demonstrate near the White House and on the National Mall. Proposed regulations, published by the National Park Service, would close 80 percent of the White House sidewalk and put new limits on spontaneous demonstrations. The Park Service says it’s also considering charging fees (they call it “cost recovery”) for demonstrations.
Before issuing new regulations, government agencies are required to publish them in draft form, and to accept and consider public comments before deciding what to do. We submitted formal comments opposing these proposals on October 8. Comments can be submitted by any member of the public until October 15, by going to www.regulations.gov and searching for proposed regulation 1024-AE45.
Closing most of the White House sidewalk
The National Park Service plans to close most of the White House sidewalk, limiting demonstrators to a 5-foot sliver along Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House sidewalk is perhaps the most iconic public forum in America, allowing “We the People” to express our views directly to the President. Many presidents have been annoyed by protests there, but the First Amendment protects our right to bring our grievances to the President’s attention.
Limiting spontaneous demonstrations
The right to protest immediately in response to unfolding events is a key part of free speech, as we saw when protests erupted at airports when President Trump signed the travel ban executive order in January 2017. The proposed regulations make it unclear whether the Park Service would continue to accommodate spontaneous demonstrations as it has in the past. Additionally, the proposed regulations would ban the use of a small stage or sound system at a demonstration unless a permit has been sought 48 hours in advance. The Park Service says it needs a minimum of 48 hours to evaluate the “safety concerns and resource impacts” of structures, but the park service doesn’t need 48 hours to know that a small stage or sound system on the Mall is safe.
Charging for free speech
The Park Service seeks public comment on whether to charge demonstrators for things like “sanitation and trash removal” and “harm to turf”—fees that could make it impossible for people without lots of money to demonstrate. But of course the Park Service doesn’t plan to charge the 45 million non-demonstrators who visit the National Mall every year for sanitation or harm to the turf. The Park Service also says that some demonstrations have “elements” that are not demonstrations at all, and for which the government can charge fees. But the proposal gives no clue about what those “elements” may be.
There are many other serious problems with the proposed changes, which we discuss in detail in our written comments. We encourage people who care about the right to protest to submit their own comments as well.