The year was 1938. The world was tense, as well it should have been the year before war broke out in Europe, ultimately plunging virtually the entire globe into World War II. Most Americans despised Adolf Hitler, the German Nazi fuhrer, but this nation was developing a political split between isolationists and those who would intervene in European affairs.
Even then, people came to Washington to demonstrate. They wanted to march in front of the German Embassy, then located in the 1300 block of Massachusetts Avenue NW, just off Thomas Circle.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was anti-Nazi. But his State Department, fearful of the foreign and domestic consequences of such demonstrations, prevailed upon Congress to pass the law that to this day prohibits demonstrations within 500 feet of foreign embassies in the nation's capital. It's the law being routinely broken near the South African Embassy by demonstrators against the evil of apartheid.
The law was quickly challenged as a violation of the right of free speech and assemblage by an anti-Nazi demonstrator who was arrested, but the U.S. Court of Appeals held there was "no restriction on these rights . . . except to the extent that they might constitute offensive public demonstrations immediately adjacent" to embassies.
What precisely does the law say? In condensed form, that it is "unlawful to display any flag, banner, placard or device designed or adapted to intimidate, coerce, or bring into public odium any foreign government, party or organization . . . or to bring into public disrepute political, social, or economic acts, views or purposes of any foreign government . . . within 500 feet of any building or premises . . . used or occupied by that foreign government . . . except by, and in accordance with, a permit issued by the chief of police . . . . "