The National Park Service is parsing through a mountain of responses it received to a question it posed last year: Should the agency seek to recover the costs of supporting protests in Washington?
On Wednesday, members of Congress had another chance to weigh in.
With the number of demonstrations on the rise, stretching the department’s resources, Park Service acting director Dan Smith said the agency wanted to test the waters of public opinion, but he said no decision has been made as to how the Park Service might recover costs.
More than 180,000 people responded during a public comment period last year. Of those, Smith told members of the House Natural Resources Committee, more than 71,000 were “substantive,” including multi-page letters of opposition from civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Park Service should have a verdict on how to proceed in the next three months, Smith said.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) asked Smith about the likelihood activists would need to pay back the government for the cost of supporting protests. She noted that organizations with various political ideologies opposed the proposal.
“Yesterday, this committee received a letter from a broad coalition of stakeholders, from the Charles Koch Institute to the ACLU, condemning the administration’s attempt to limit First Amendment protests in D.C.,” Haaland said. “It isn’t often that we see such divergent groups agree.”
The letter Haaland referenced was signed by a coalition of eight organizations that joined to speak out against the proposal, which also would limit where in the District demonstrators could gather.
“Our organizations do not agree on all issues, but one principle we unreservedly support is our right to gather together to express ourselves,” the letter said. “We are very concerned that, should these rules go into effect, they will chill speech and harm our national discourse.”
Several groups said they hoped Smith would commit to abandoning the proposal during Wednesday’s hearing, but he said the idea is still in the “review phase.”
“It was a proposal to just ask for how people felt about trying to recoup some type of money for the unbelievable cost it is for these demonstrations,” he said.
About 750 First Amendment demonstrations converge on the Mall annually, according to the Park Service. Large rallies, such as the Women’s March and March for Life, often require additional support from Park Service personnel and U.S. Park Police to ensure safety and limit harm to federal land.
The agency does not track how much it spends to support demonstrations, though spokesman Mike Litterst said, on average, processing permits alone costs the Park Service about $700,000 annually in staff time.
“We’re not trying to do anything to take away First Amendment rights in this country, but we do look for ways to manage it,” he said.
The hearing was a review of the Park Service’s budget, which had been cut to 2010 levels despite having 28 new parks and 5 million additional acres of land to oversee, lawmakers said.
Smith said the cost of such events — rallies, protests, vigils and other demonstrations — has been “unbelievable.” As a result, the agency has found itself pulling from emergency funds to cover the cost of security, permit processing and cleanup.
“Despite these increases, the administration has imposed a fiscal year 2020 budget with 3,500 fewer full-time equivalent employees,” Haaland said. “In short: The National Park Service’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposed by the Department of the Interior is reckless and irresponsible.”
The idea of being asked to repay costs has alarmed activists and civil rights groups, who say the charges would probably limit large-scale demonstrations to a few groups that could afford to incur the costs — violating the First Amendment guarantees of every American’s right to assemble.
Demonstration organizers are not required to pay for a permit to host a rally in the District, according to Park Service policy. However, protesters do cover other costs, such as on-site emergency medics, trash cleanup and portable toilets.