On Jan. 28, federal Judge Charles Richey sentenced William Thomas, his wife, Ellen, and two other men to jail for violating regulations that prohibit "camping" in Lafayette Park. These people have been demonstrating around the clock in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, for years. They were arrested on a winter's night last year after a policeman found them asleep at their demonstration site.

Richey originally dismissed the charges on constitutional grounds, but the U.S. court of appeals reversed and sent the cases back for trial. In pronouncing jail sentences, Richey paid his respects to their right to demonstrate and acknowledged that jail is unlikely to deter them from returning to the park and taking up as before. But he said the sentences might deter others, so off they went. This marked the culmination of a long and sometimes bitter battle between the U.S. Park Service and others rankled by "visual blight" around the White House, and demonstrators and their civil libertarian allies such as myself.

It started in the summer of 1981, when William Thomas began demonstrating against nuclear war and such policies as nuclear assured destruction on the White House sidewalk. His method was simple: an around-the-clock vigil using signs, leaflets and conversation. His continuous presence -- living without accommodations through rain, sleet and snow -- was part of his message. To Thomas, the question wasn't what he was doing out there at all hours; it was what the rest of us were doing elsewhere.

The succeeding years have seen a variety of battles waged by the government in its war to rid the public space around the White House of Thomas and a few others who joined him over the years. The first general in the war was former interior secretary James Watt, whose first salvo was an announcement that he intended to ban all demonstrations in front of the White House and in Lafayette Park. This led to a series of regulations restricting demonstrations on the White House sidewalk and to a series of arrests and legal challenges. Though Watt is gone, the regulations remain. For example, in the "center zone" of the White House sidewalk, it is illegal to remain stationary with a sign -- you must keep moving.

Part of the government's argument in the courts was that little is lost by restricting the White House sidewalk: long-term demonstrators with signs had ample opportunity to convey their messages right across the street in Lafayette Park.

However, the story in Lafayette Park is pretty much the same: a series of creeping regulations have restricted permissible conduct. Signs can be no larger than 3 feet by 3 feet, demonstrators must remain within 3 feet of their signs, and they must not "camp." You might think it's simple enough to obey such regulations. But it wasn't for Thomas and others committed to a continuous presence.

The culprit is the regulation against "camping." Thomas has been told that a continuous vigil is not camping, sleeping is not camping and using blankets or a sleeping bag for warmth is not camping. But some combination of these, depending on the mood or predilection of the officer on the beat, is.

Thomas is in jail today for doing pretty much the same thing he's been doing for the past two years: demonstrating around the clock with two regulation-size signs, various leaflets, books and other papers and clothes, blankets and other protection dictated by the weather. He does not break ground, prepare food or eliminate bodily wastes in the park, and what sleeping he does is light and sporadic. The only difference is that this time an officer decided to arrest him, and this time a judge decided to convict him and put him in jail.

All told, Thomas has been arrested some 30 times on various charges over the past seven years, but only a handful have resulted in convictions. This is not to say he has escaped official wrath. At different times, he and his friends have had their signs, papers and other property confiscated and destroyed, and they have spent days and weekends in jail waiting to be brought to court or for the charges to be dismissed.

The government, meanwhile, has spent millions of dollars for police, attorneys and court fees to keep the White House sidewalk and Lafayette Park safe from a handful of demonstrators. It is said these efforts are needed so visitors to the executive mansion and park can enjoy "unspoiled" beauty. I suppose that today the officials responsible for this part of the city feel a warm sense of security not felt since 1981.

Has the fight been worth it? I think not. I think Americans can take a little "visual blight" from time to time. It tweaks their consciences. And I think our government has better things to do with our money.

Mark A. Venuti

is a Washington lawyer who has participated in much of the litigation involving the demonstrations in Lafayette Park.