Ac­tivists push back on pro­posed protest fees, rule changes

The Mercury News - - News - By Marissa J. Lang

WASH­ING­TON >> With just days left to sub­mit pub­lic com­ments on a Na­tional Park Ser­vice pro­posal to al­ter how protests are han­dled in the Dis­trict of Columbia, civil rights ad­vo­cates have is­sued ur­gent calls to op­pose the mea­sures, say­ing they would vi­o­late First Amend­ment rights.

The pro­posal, which was in­tro­duced in Au­gust, floats more than a dozen changes to how the Park Ser­vice fa­cil­i­tates protests, in­clud­ing how many demon­stra­tors may gather on na­tional parks’ land without a per­mit, what ar­eas pro­test­ers can demon­strate in, and whether pro­test­ers should be re­quired to re­im­burse the agency for the sup­port and se­cu­rity it pro­vides.

Con­sti­tu­tional ex­perts im­me­di­ately cast doubt on whether im­pos­ing fees on groups ex­er­cis­ing their First Amend­ment rights would pass con­sti­tu­tional muster, and protest or­ga­niz­ers said hav­ing to pay fees would dis­cour­age peo­ple from demon­strat­ing.

Lawyers with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union are scru­ti­niz­ing other parts of the pro­posal, in­clud­ing lim­its on where pro­test­ers can stand on the side­walk out­side the White House. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is­sued a pub­lic re­sponse to the Park Ser­vice that in­cludes a point-by-point take­down of the pro­pos­als.

“The heart of the mat­ter is clear: Pres­i­dent Trump might not like hav­ing pro­test­ers on his doorstep, but the First Amend­ment guar­an­tees their right to be there,” Arthur Spitzer, le­gal co-di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of D.C., wrote in a blog post Tues­day ex­plain­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s op­po­si­tion.

“Fee re­quire­ments could make mass protests like Martin Luther King Jr.’s his­toric 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton and its ‘I have a dream’ speech too ex­pen­sive to hap­pen.”

As of Fri­day, three days be­fore the pub­lic com­ment pe­riod comes to a close, 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 NW.

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 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 of 750 per year, and they are grow­ing in size as well. Last year, the Dis­trict had 714 per­mit­ted demon­stra­tions, in­clud­ing the Women’s March, in which tens of thou­sands packed the Mall and city streets.

So far this year, the Park Ser­vice has helped co­or­di­nate hun­dreds of protests, in­clud­ing the sweep­ing March for Our Lives, the Fam­i­lies Be­long To­gether rally and the Unite the Right white-na­tion­al­ist demon­stra­tion, which drew thou­sands of coun­ter­protesters and re­quired in­tri­cate se­cu­rity plans and of­fi­cers from mul­ti­ple agen­cies.

It’s put a sub­stan­tial strain on the agency and its bud­get, which has not grown to ac­com­mo­date the ris­ing tide of civil un­rest, Lit­terst said.

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