Protecting Protest: How Proposed Rules Would Chill Free Expression Around DC Landmarks
04-01-2019 05:29pm

Protecting Protest: How Proposed Rules Would Chill Free Expression Around DC Landmarks

Casey Mattox, Charles Koch Institute Senior Fellow

Progress that comes from interaction among diverse voices is possible when all citizens have the ability to make best use of First Amendment liberties. In that pursuit, the ACLU, National Mall Coalition, Public Citizen, ACLU-DC, Institute for Free Speech, NAACP, and Charles Koch Institute are raising concern about a proposed National Park Service (NPS) rule that could hinder free expression and peaceful assembly around DC landmarks.

The NPS rule is meant to clarify the conditions for demonstrating at the White House and National Mall with the goal of protecting the grounds and views. The agency has stressed its commitment to upholding civil liberties in the process. Nonetheless, the rule includes provisions that would impose unreasonable burdens on citizens seeking to make their voices heard.

New fees could infringe on equal rights

The rule would introduce fees – in amounts to be later determined by NPS – for assembling and engaging in First Amendment protected speech. It’s troubling that NPS is considering charging fees at all for such expression. But it’s more troubling still that the rule does not include a proposal for ensuring viewpoint neutral standards in how these fees are administered. That omission increases the risk of discriminatory practices—in which authorities play favorites based on who they agree with—compromising the principle of equal rights.

The proposal undermines the rule of law

The National Park Service does not have the statutory authority to create these rules. Congress authorized the NPS to charge fees only for “special events” like weddings and sports activities. It expressly did not authorize the NPS to charge citizens a fee to engage in free expression. When agencies expand their role beyond what is established in legislation passed by Congress, government becomes less accountable. Put another way, if NPS believes it should begin charging citizens to speak on the National Mall it should ask Congress to provide it that authority. And voters could then hold members of Congress accountable for such a decision.

Open access to the public square is stifled

The rule would limit spontaneous demonstrations by delaying approval of permits from 24 hours to 3 business days. For example, instead of being able to gather for a vigil after a tragedy, mourners may have to wait as many as five days after the event. The character of spontaneous expression is altered if people must wait for a week.

Thus, the rule should be reconsidered so that Americans are not subjected to these barriers.

Whether in the heart of the capitol, or anywhere across America, the civil liberties that serve as the foundation of our country make it possible for courageous individuals to take unpopular stands. Progress depends on the ability of individuals to think and speak freely.

We will continue to work with a broad range of partners to protect a diversity of opinions in the public square by defending civil liberties while also investing in research to learn how people with different ideas can work together. Both are necessary for a culture marked by openness and collaboration.

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