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When interpreting freedom, reason sometimes takes a back seat

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In the great marble space pierced by sunlight, a couple was dancing arm-in-arm to their own, silent music over Memorial Day weekend.

And near them, three men quietly swayed, jiggled and jumped.

Then the cops came. Slam! Bam! Crunch! And all five dancers were in cuffs, as shocked tourists visiting the Thomas Jefferson Memorial watched the scuffle.

This sounds awful. And if you watch the YouTube video of the dancers being arrested at the Jefferson Memorial on Saturday, it looks a lot like a bad remake of “Footloose.”

“Why can’t I dance with my girlfriend?” one of the arrested men kept asking police officers, who tore him away from the arms of a woman in pink and slammed some of the dancers down on the marble floor, then swept all of the tourists and their many running video cameras outside.

“The memorial is closed,” a U.S. Park Police officer told onlookers who were there to visit the tribute to Jefferson and perhaps read the inscription on the northeast wall: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free.”

Except free to dance, right?

The truth is, the whole thing was a performance.

The dancers? They weren’t innocent tourists moved to sway by the majesty of Jefferson. They were professional protesters — Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin and Iraq war veteran Adam Kokesh among the group — who were making a point about freedom and liberty in an event they promoted on Facebook.

They boogied with Jefferson to challenge this month’s U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that dancing at memorials is forbidden “because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration,” according to the panel’s ruling.

This all began in 2008, when 18 flash mobbers danced quietly inside the memorial to commemorate Jefferson’s 265th birthday. The police asked them to leave and when they didn’t, they were cuffed.

One of the dancers, Mary Brooke Oberwetter, sued the Park Police on a First Amendment plea but lost. She appealed and lost again, thus the May 17 ruling that led to Saturday’s dance party.

The five dancers were each arrested, charged with demonstrating without a permit and released, said Park Police spokesman Sgt. David Schlosser. Dancing is considered an expressive activity under the regulations that the park police follow, he said.

The Park Police are also investigating the protesters’ allegations that the arrests were unnecessarily rough and improper, Schlosser said.

The police? They looked ludicrous arresting five people quietly swaying on a Saturday afternoon. And even though they were responding to the court ruling, it’s easy to see that five people weren’t causing any great disruption or chaos. And court records seem to show that the 18 who danced near midnight three years ago were equally harmless.

If the police always adhered to the law, my kids would’ve been locked up when we were there in April, because their Battle of the Bionicles reenactment contained at least seven federal violations.

This is ugly all over. It’s ugly because the freedoms central to our nation’s success can be so widely interpreted without any nod to reason.

I was reminded of this Monday morning, as we hauled the boys out to Arlington Cemetery to pay homage to the men and women who lost their lives defending our freedoms, only to see the hideous display by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who were there in a small group, waving their Supreme Court-protected signs of anti-gay hatred on yet another solemn and somber day.

It’s a painful and powerful reminder of how important sticking to a principle can be, no matter how distasteful the result.

Civil disobedience is a righteous tool when it comes to lunch-counter protests and bus boycotts.

The right to dance? A little goofy, I know. Somehow, I don’t believe there are thousands of groovers feeling oppressed by their inability to legally dance inside a memorial.

But let’s be reasonable. The only thing harmful about their dancing was that it just wasn’t all that good.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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