The proposed regulation could curtail demonstrations on some of Washington’s most popular staging grounds for protests, including the National Mall.
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired huge protests, with hundreds of thousands of women marching on the National Mall and scientists swarming the White House fence.
But now the Trump administration is seeking to restrict protests by effectively blocking them along the north sidewalk of the White House and making it easier for police to shut them down. A National Park Service proposal also would open the door to charging organizers for the cost of putting up barricades or reseeding grass.
The proposed regulation could curtail demonstrations on some of Washington, D.C.’s most popular staging grounds for protests, including the National Mall, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. It includes Lafayette Square across from the White House and the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalks in front of the Trump International Hotel.
The proposal dovetails with Republicans’ increasingly heated campaign rhetoric over “mob rule” and the boisterous protests against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Trump has been antagonistic toward protesters, once waxing nostalgic about how it used to be socially acceptable to assault them.
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“When you think about petitioning your government for redress of grievances, this is the nation’s capital — this is where you come to do it,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which opposes the proposal. “And now you have the Trump administration that is not only engaging in extreme rhetoric against demonstrators and suggesting that protests should be illegal,” but “taking concrete actions to suppress dissent and suppress free speech.”
The proposal, issued in August and open for comment through Monday, says demonstrations can impose substantial costs on the federal government. Some of the changes are designed to “preserve an atmosphere of contemplation” around the memorials, the park service said. Other revisions, according to the proposal, would help protect National Mall grass from being trampled and give the park service more time to negotiate logistics before permits would be issued for demonstrations.
Fee requirements could make mass protests “too expensive to happen,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the District of Columbia.
“Managing public lands for the benefit of the American people” —— whether demonstrators or tourists —— “is what Congress funds the National Park Service to do,” Spitzer said in a blog post. “While the Park Service may be strapped for funds, it cannot balance its budget on the backs of people seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Current National Park Service rules for rallies and marches have been forged through decades of court cases, including lawsuits that successfully challenged government restrictions. The proposal would rewrite many of those rules — and, if enacted, face certain litigation.
The plan would transform the way the agency vets demonstrations and where they can be conducted. For example, it could blur the lines between the park service’s treatment of demonstrations, which typically get more deference, and “special events,” such as festivals and the filming of movies.
As of Friday, more than 10,000 people had voiced their opinions on the rule changes. Nearly 15,000 had signed an ACLU petition opposing the restrictions.
Among the proposed rules that have invited the most ire is a recommendation that the park service limit the area outside the White House where protesters may gather. The proposal suggests that the agency close 20 feet of the 25-foot-wide sidewalk beyond the White House gate on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.
The ACLU has previously sued the federal government, and won, over attempts to limit areas in which protesters could gather near the White House.
Several activists, including Ben Wikler, the Washington, D.C., director for MoveOn.org, said the Trump administration was trying to “curtail protests” and push demonstrators away from the White House fence.
But the park service cited concern about the degradation of historic sites, monuments and turf as reasons for limiting the number of protesters in certain areas.
The agency has not produced an estimate for how much money it spends annually to support protests and rallies, but spokesman Mike Litterst said that, on average, the processing of permits alone costs the park service $700,000 in staff time per year.
The number of protests in Washington has increased substantially to an average 750 a year, and they are growing in size. Last year, D.C. had 714 permitted demonstrations, including the Women’s March, in which tens of thousands packed the Mall and city streets.
Organizers that want to host large demonstrations in D.C. parks are already required to cover certain costs, including providing toilets, on-site emergency medics, setup and takedown services, and more, according to protest organizers.