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Dancing at a national memorial isn’t civil disobedience

By Editorial,

THERE IS ANOTHER “Dance Party @ TJ’s” on Saturday. If it goes anything like previous ones, it will not be pretty. And that won’t be the fault of the U.S. Park Police.

The TJ in question is Thomas Jefferson, and the party is to convene at the Jefferson Memorial. Anyone is free to polka on the steps of the memorial or the surrounding property. But dancing is forbidden inside the memorial.

Mary Brooke Oberwetter learned this the hard way in 2008, when she and 17 friends assembled around midnight to pay homage to Jefferson by silently dancing inside his memorial. Park Police officers warned her at least twice she could be arrested, citing a regulation that bars “picketing, speechmaking, marching, holding vigils or religious services and all other like forms of conduct” that has the “effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers.” When she persisted, Ms. Oberwetter was arrested for interfering with an agency function and demonstrating without a permit. She sued the Park Police, arguing that her First Amendment rights were violated.

On May 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sensibly rebuffed Ms. Oberwetter’s claims, holding that the memorial had been created and maintained as “a commemorative site” and that the government was “under no obligation to open it up as a stage for the roving dance troupes of the world — even those celebrating Mr. Jefferson.” Doing so would infringe on the ability — and rights — of all visitors to enjoy the memorial in relative peace. “Outside the Jefferson Memorial, of course, [Ms. Oberwetter] and her friends have always been free to dance to their hearts’ content,” the unanimous three-judge panel noted.

The decision did not sit well with a group of self-proclaimed libertarians who decided to defy the court on Memorial Day weekend. YouTube videos show a Park Police officer calmly, clearly and repeatedly warning dancers to stop. Five individuals were arrested and handcuffed; two were forcibly thrown to the ground after resisting but appeared unhurt. The Park Police is investigating whether the officers used excessive force.

Dancers plan to reconvene at the Jefferson Memorial on Saturday. Proclaims the event’s Facebook page: “You don’t have to risk arrest, you can dance on the steps outside in support or join us in civil disobedience in the memorial!”

Civil disobedience? To what end? No one was banned from dancing in the memorial because of race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or citizenship status. Pro-government ballroom aficionados were not given preference over anti-government breakdancers. Aggrandizing what amounts to a stunt based on misinformed views of the First Amendment cheapens the real and courageous achievements of those who advance the causes of civil rights by refusing to comply with immoral laws. The dancers’ energy and presumably good intentions would be better channeled by addressing real injustices.

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