The National Park Service, arguing that the proliferation of permanent protest displays is causing "visual blight" in Lafayette Park, has announced new regulations that would restrict both the size and the number of protest signs there and prohibit the plywood huts and other structures that have sprung up across the street from the White House.
The regulations, according to the Park Service, are intended to control the manner, but not the content, of protests by demonstrators who have settled into the park on a long-term basis and turned its picture-postcard beauty into what many call an eyesore.
"We've obviously had a lot of complaints about conditions in the park," said Sandra Alley, associate regional director of public affairs for the Park Service's national capital region. "We're not trying to curb First Amendment rights, but we are seeking some sort of balance."
Hand-carried signs would be exempted from the new regulations, and protest groups would be allowed to set up temporary speaker's or "soapbox" platforms for rallies in the park.
But other "structures" -- the huts, chairs, desks, makeshift toilets, kitchen sinks and other personal items that officials say protesters have brought in or "stored" in the park -- would be prohibited.
Under the new regulations, scheduled to take effect in late November after a period for public comment, signs placed or set down in the park must be no larger than four feet in either dimension and no thicker than one quarter inch. They may not be elevated more than six feet from the ground at their highest point and may not be combined with other signs to form larger structures.
No protesters may have more than two such signs in the park at any one time, and those signs must be "attended" at all times, meaning that someone must be within three feet of the sign or it will be considered abandoned property.
Park Service officials say they need the tighter restrictions because protesters have begun setting up billboard-like, hand-painted signs along the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the park, obscuring the view of the White House, posing a safety threat in high winds and generally ruining the park's esthetic quality.
But park protesters and civil libertarians, who have tangled with the Park Service before, raised concerns yesterday that the new restrictions could violate constitutional protections of free speech and free expression.
"They want to try to make Lafayette Park look more pretty in the view of some people," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU's local office here. "We just don't think that is a very weighty concern to justify the infringement of First Amendment rights."
Though an around-the-clock antinuclear vigil has been going on in the park for more than two years, court decisions have prohibited overnight "sleep-in" protests there. Long-term demonstrations on the sidewalk in front of the White House also have been banned, a move that has made Lafayette Park all the more attractive to protesters.
"I came here June 27 and I just haven't gotten home yet," said Prima Blakus of Portland, Ore., who sat in a chair at the southeast corner of the park yesterday and flashed the peace sign to passing motorists. "Now I've gotten stubborn, I'm waiting for world peace."
More than 50 signs -- encouraging everything from world peace to birth control to freedom of religion -- were set up in the park yesterday, sharing space with lunching office workers and drawing the attention of tourists. Only two demonstrators, Blakus and Concepcion Picciotto, were in the park with the signs.
Picciotto, an organizer of the antinuclear vigil, said she and a companion, William Thomas, built several of the larger protest signs that face the White House. "The more weapons they build, the more signs we have to have to show the people what is happening," she said.
But Park Service officials, in a memorandum accompanying publication of the regulations in yesterday's Federal Register, warn that without the new restrictions the "dump-like atmosphere" and "building boom" in the park could get worse. They say they have received requests for permits to establish a library in the park, a landing spot for a spaceship and facilities to perform an abortion.