Jim Moses of Arlington calls the place "a rat hole" and says the ugly junk and signs left him shocked and speechless. His opinion is shared by many others, and they use words such as "sickening" and "filth" when they speak of this "national disgrace."

Andrew Teter of Silver Spring worries about its appearance, but thinks the Constitution places free speech above scenic beauty. There are plenty of people in his camp, too, and they use words like "delightful" and "uniquely important" as they praise "a thrilling example of democracy in action."

The inspiration for all this passion and hyperbole is a former apple orchard and soldiers' encampment located across the street from the White House now known as Lafayette Park.

Since August, when the National Park Service complained of "visual blight" in the park and asked for public comment on proposed rules that would limit the size and number of protest signs in the park, the agency's National Capital Region has been inundated with letters and petitions on both sides of this controversy pitting free speech against scenic beauty.

"We've gotten more public comment on this than just about anything in recent history," said Sandra Alley, the Park Service spokeswoman whose East Potomac Park office is the official repository for the letters, which have come from as far away as Arizona and Mexico.

Though the official comment period ended Oct. 21, with final regulations due out in December, Alley said correspondence from the public is still arriving. The letters and petitions supporting the proposed rules went into one black binder, those opposing them into another.

Nobody minced words.

"Let's get rid of the trash," Bradford Parker, a District resident, implored in his letter. "Where has our pride and dignity gone?"

David Denholm of Vienna complained that the "disgusting display in Lafayette Park" makes him "cringe" whenever he shows out-of-town visitors around.

And Elwood Wagner of Philadelphia appealed to the Park Service to let the park be a park, "with green grass, shrubs, birds, squirrels etc., not signs, posters, trash, tents, destruction of the horticulture and filth."

Then there were those who suggested that the demonstrators be given year-round space for their protests -- near Buzzard Point or the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant.

The issue has divided the legal community as well as park lovers.

The Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest group, has asked for more stringent regulations, including a ban against demonstrations and signs in Lafayette Park during the spring and summer between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

The liberal American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue if the proposed regulations are adopted as policy.

"The additional restrictions . . . go far beyond the limits of what could have been justified" to protect the park and the public safety, ACLU legal director Arthur B. Spitzer argued in 25 pages of comments filed with the Park Service.

"Because of the park's location directly across the street from the White House, it is uniquely important and appropriate as a location for demonstrations addressed (actually or symbolically) to the president of the United States and to others (ranging from visiting heads of state to tourists) who visit the White House," he wrote.

Spitzer, noting that some have suggested the Ellipse as a more suitable protest site, said that location receives so few visitors that protesters might as well conduct a demonstration on Roosevelt Island for all the attention it would get.

"The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the rights of the people to communicate with each other, not with the grass and the sky," Spitzer wrote.

Robert Corn of Arlington accused the Park Service of exaggerating the problems caused by park demonstrations. Robert Shreffler of Arizona, referring to the current round-the-clock antinuclear vigils in the park, wrote that there is "nothing at all ugly, wrong or illegal with these people protesting the destruction of the earth."

The Sierra Club, capitalizing on what it called "its unique perspective," called the Park Service regulations inappropriate and arbitrary and said freedom of speech had become a part of Lafayette Park's character.

Alley said the Park Service will weigh all the comments and try to keep a balance between the care of the park and First Amendment rights.

The proposed rules would not apply to hand-held signs. But permanent signs, such as the billboard-size plywood structures or huts that have sprung up along the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the park, would have to be no larger than four feet in either dimension and no thicker than one-quarter inch.

There would be a limit of two signs per protester, and a demonstrator would have to stay within three feet of the sign. Personal property such as makeshift toilets, chairs and desks would be prohibited. Protests of fewer than 100 persons would be restricted to a small "soapbox" platform, rather than a stage.

Opponents of the proposed new guidelines argue that the signs must be big enough to be seen from across the street and by passing motorists. Also, according to John Steinbach, a member of the Gray Panthers of Metropolitan Washington, the proposed stage restrictions could be dangerous and would make it difficult to present theater or musical groups as part of a protest.

Steinbach, an organizer of the Friends of the First Amendment petition drive against the proposed regulations, said the White House and the park have been a traditional center for political dissension for the last 100 years, going back before Suffragette and antiwar protests.

Another tradition, according to a letter from the White House Vigil for the ERA Committee, is that "true democracy is rarely an orderly process. Strict order tends to be the byproduct of totalitarian, repressive regimes with little respect for individual rights."