The Battle To Remold the Mall

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

The National Park Service envisions a prime venue for demonstrations: a broad space at the foot of the Capitol with restrooms, seating, a paved surface, even a stand for the media.

Attorneys for activist groups fear a designated, government-approved "pit," limiting freedom of speech and movement in a hallowed place of protest.

The proposal to turn Union Square, the site of the Capitol reflecting pool and the Grant Memorial, into an "urban civic square" is one of many ideas the Park Service is mulling over as it plans the future of the Mall.

But that and other suggested changes have sparked harsh debate between government officials seeking to preserve one of the country's most heavily used national parks and activists concerned about limits on free speech and civil rights.

The faceoff prompted tense exchanges at a public meeting this month and demands for the Park Service to halt its planning and seek broader public input.

"This is a sugar-coating effort to conceal the real plan, which is to reorganize the Mall from its traditional venue as the heart and soul of this country's free-speech protest movement," said Brian Becker, national coordinator of the antiwar ANSWER coalition.

Susan Spain, project executive for the National Mall Plan, countered: "We are not seeking to restrict First Amendment demonstrations whatsoever."

The Park Service requires permits for most demonstrations and has "reasonable time, place and manner restrictions" for them, she said. What is proposed is only a better place to protest, with more facilities, she said.

But lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which advocates for protest groups, noted that the Capitol might not always be the protesters' target.

Demonstrators "also want to be able to protest as far back [on the Mall] as they need and as wide as they need," she said. "They have the right to . . . not be shunted off to a protest pit."

None of the proposals for the Mall's future, laid out in three mix-and-match alternatives, has been adopted. The Park Service says that they are only suggestions and that it is seeking public comment.

Last week, it extended the mail and online comment period through Feb. 15.

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