Jefferson Memorial dancer's suit against Park Service tossed

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; B03

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit that alleged the National Park Service violated the rights of a District woman who was arrested in 2008 for dancing with 17 others at the Jefferson Memorial.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled in a 26-page opinion Monday that the interior of the memorial is not a public forum where people might dance, even if they are silently boogying to music on headphones.

"The purpose of the memorial is to publicize Thomas Jefferson's legacy, so that critics and supporters alike may contemplate his place in history," Bates wrote. "The Park Service prohibits all demonstrations in the interior of the memorial, in order to maintain 'an atmosphere of calm, tranquillity, and reverence.'

"Prohibiting demonstrations is a reasonable means of ensuring a tranquil and contemplative mood at the Jefferson Memorial," the judge added.

The suit stems from a dance by Mary B. Oberwetter and her friends inside the memorial at 11:55 p.m. April 12, 2008, the eve of Jefferson's birthday.

Oberwetter and the others were listening to music on headphones and dancing to honor "the individualist spirit for which Jefferson is known," Oberwetter's attorney, Alan Gura, wrote in court papers. He said he was disappointed in the ruling and will appeal it.

U.S. Park Police Officer Kenneth Hilliard appeared and told the dancers to stop. When Oberwetter refused and asked why, Hilliard arrested her and charged her with demonstrating without a permit and interfering with an agency function. The charges were eventually dropped.

Oberwetter sued the Park Service in March 2009, alleging that it had violated her rights to free expression and asking Bates to block the government from taking such steps in the future. She also sought monetary damages against Hilliard and the Park Service. The Justice Department argued for the Park Service that the government has the right to regulate activities inside the memorial because it is seeking to maintain a quiet atmosphere.

"The Memorial is, has long been, and is intended to be a place of calm, tranquillity, and reverence -- a place where visitors can go to celebrate and honor Jefferson and enjoy and contemplate the Memorial itself without the distraction of public demonstrations and other expressive activities," Justice Department lawyers wrote in court papers. "The Memorial is akin to a temple or a shrine (both in terms of its purpose and its physical characteristics), not a place of public expression."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company