Of­fi­cials con­sider charg­ing for protests at Na­tional Mall

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY KEVIN FREKING As­so­ci­ated Press

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice is ex­plor­ing whether to re­quire protest or­ga­niz­ers to pay for the cost of pro­vid­ing law en­force­ment and other sup­port ser­vices for demon­stra­tions held in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

The pro­posed rule also could shrink a sig­nif­i­cant portion of the side­walk out­side the White House that is ac­ces­si­ble to pedes­tri­ans, leav­ing a five-foot wide sliver. The pub­lic has un­til the close of Mon­day to com­ment on the pro­posal.

More than 7,600 com­ments have been sub­mit­ted so far, the vast ma­jor­ity in op­po­si­tion, in­clud­ing many who con­sider it an ef­fort by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­ter some of the ma­jor protests that have marked his pres­i­dency.

“Re­quir­ing th­ese bur­den­some fees will dis­suade Amer­i­cans from demon­strat­ing,” wrote Gayle Copeland of San Antonio, Texas. “This new rule is not re­flec­tive of Amer­i­can val­ues or his­tory to peace­fully protest.”

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice is­sues about 750 per­mits a year for demon­stra­tions within the Na­tional Mall and at nearby parks. The agency said its pro- posed rule is de­signed to pro­vide greater clarity about how and where demon­stra­tion can oc­cur in a man­ner that pro­tects his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant pub­lic land.

There have been sev­eral large demon­stra­tions on or near the Na­tional Mall since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as­sumed of­fice. The Women’s March in Jan­uary 2017 brought pro­test­ers from through­out the coun­try to Wash­ing­ton, and that has been fol­lowed by protests of the pres­i­dent’s ac­tions on cli­mate change and guns, to name a few.

Na­tional Park Ser­vice Spokesman Brent Everitt said the agency will al­ways sup­port the First Amend­ment right of free speech and as­sem­bly. But cit­ing an event pre­ced­ing the Trump pres­i­dency, he noted that the cost of pro­vid­ing law en­force­ment and other sup­port ser­vices for Oc­cupy DC in 2012 came to about $480,000. The pro­test­ers sought to bring at­ten­tion to so­cial and eco­nomic in­equal­ity in the wake of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis and set up a makeshift tent camp that raised health con­cerns.

“We want to know the pub­lic’s views on whether this is an ap­pro­pri­ate ex­pen­di­ture of Na­tional Park Ser­vice funds, or whether we should also at­tempt to re­cover costs for sup­port­ing th­ese kinds of events if the group seek­ing the per­mit for the event has the abil­ity to cover those costs,” Everitt said.

Everitt said the Na­tional Park Ser­vice is not rec­om­mend­ing charg­ing a fee for demon­stra­tions, but rais­ing the ques­tion of whether it should.

The ACLU’s chap­ter in the District of Co­lum­bia said many of the changes the Na­tional Park Ser­vice is con­sid­er­ing would be un­con­sti­tu­tional if adopted. Arthur Spitzer, the group’s le­gal co-di­rec­tor, said that if cost re­cov­ery re­quire­ments had been in ef­fect in 1963, the his­toric march fea­tur­ing the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech prob­a­bly couldn’t have hap­pened.

“The Na­tional Park Ser­vice can­not seek to bal­ance its bud­get on the backs of peo­ple seek­ing to ex­er­cise their con­sti­tu­tional rights,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer said the ACLU’s Wash­ing­ton chap­ter sup­ports some of the changes the ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing, such as adding to the list of ar­eas where large num­bers of peo­ple can demon­strate in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal with­out per­mits.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS AP

Demon­stra­tors sit on the ground along Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue in front of the White House on April 29, 2017, in Wash­ing­ton. The Na­tional Park Ser­vice is ex­plor­ing the ques­tion of whether it should re­coup from protest or­ga­niz­ers the cost of pro­vid­ing law en­force­ment and other sup­port ser­vices for demon­stra­tions held in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

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