Protesters Sue for Speech Spot

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Organizers planning a protest during President Bush's State of the Union address next week say they have been denied a permit to hold the demonstration around the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool because that area has been reclassified as part of the security perimeter for the day of the speech.

The organizers of the Tuesday protest, called "World Can't Wait -- Drive Out the Bush Regime," say the National Park Service and the U.S. Capitol Police initially offered them the Capitol Reflecting Pool as a demonstration site but changed their minds.

Demonstrators have been told to confine their gathering to the gravel walkways on the Mall between Third and Fourth streets, farther from the Capitol. The grassy areas are fenced off because they are being resodded.

Travis Morales, one of the organizers of the demonstration, said the restrictions effectively deny the protesters a meaningful public space to gather as a group. The nearest place to meet together, he said, is Seventh Street, about a mile from the Capitol.

"We are being told that turf renovation and security trump our First Amendment right to protest," he said.

Morales said the group was offered use of the area around the Capitol Reflecting Pool on Jan. 10 and that the site was not then part of any security perimeter. But on Jan. 19, he said, the group was told the security area had been expanded to include the Reflecting Pool.

He called the change "politically motivated," adding that the Bush administration "is trying to push us so far away that we can't be seen or heard. . . . A protest not seen and a protest not heard is not a protest."

The demonstrators filed a federal lawsuit yesterday seeking a court order that would enable them to gather at the Capitol Reflecting Pool. U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina will convene a hearing, possibly today.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Capitol Police declined to comment on Morales's allegations that politics played a part in the decision and would not say if the Capitol Reflecting Pool has been used in the past as a protest site.

"Many of the questions you are asking are security-related, so we can't comment on that," said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a public information officer with the agency.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer with the Partnership for Civil Justice, said the area around the Capitol Reflecting Pool on the west side of the U.S. Capitol has historically been a site where demonstrators have staged protests.

"It's been used time and time again for major demonstrations and small demonstrations," she said. "It's been a critical location for First Amendment expressive activity for a long, long time."

James R. Klimaski, an attorney for the demonstrators, said protesters have been told they can't use the area because it would interfere with Bush's motorcade. But, Klimaski said, that portion of the Capitol grounds is normally used as a parking lot.

Klimaski said that other groups have previously held demonstrations on the east side of the Capitol during State of the Union addresses but that those areas are now off limits because of the construction of a new visitor center.

Morales said organizers of the Capitol Hill protest expect it to draw about 5,000 participants. The demonstration is one of several planned around the country. The group's Web site urges people to gather on the night of Bush's address to Congress and to "symbolically drown out" the president's speech with drums, pots and pans, and other noise.

He said organizers are trying to get a permit from D.C. police to close part of Third Street so they can rally there. The group said it does have a permit to hold a national demonstration against the Bush administration at the Ellipse on Feb. 4.

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