On the final day that the National Park Service was accepting input on more than a dozen policy changes to alter how and where protests are conducted in the District, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) issued a warning to the federal agency: Reject the proposals — or else.
If the proposals are approved, she said, Congress and the federal courts will work to dismantle them.
Among the 14 proposals introduced in August is one that encourages the agency to look into requiring protest organizers to reimburse it for the support and security it provides during large demonstrations — the number of which has gone up significantly in recent years, officials said. Other proposals seek to limit how many demonstrators may gather on the Park Service’s land without a permit and in what areas protesters can congregate, including a suggestion that 20 feet of the 25-foot sidewalk beyond the White House gate on Pennsylvania Avenue NW be closed off.
“The feedback NPS receives from its public comment period should dissuade it from pursuing these policies,” Norton said Monday afternoon in a statement. “But, if the Trump administration chooses to move forward, they will have to deal with me, my colleagues in Congress and, I believe, the courts, to justify these proposals.”
With just hours to go before the public comment period closed at 11:59 p.m. Monday, Norton became the latest public figure to lambaste the proposed changes.
More than 41,000 people sent official comments to the National Park Service over the past 60 days, spokesman Brent Everitt said Monday. For a regional issue, he said, the debate has resulted in “great public engagement” that the Park Service will use when forming its final policy decisions.
Given the number of responses, Everitt said, the agency may take several months to finish a report on public sentiment and reaction that goes through each of the 14 proposals.
The agency will then craft a policy based on public feedback, Everitt said.
It was not immediately clear how heavily public comments would be weighed, though earlier this year, the Park Service reversed course on a proposal to dramatically increase fees to enter national parks during periods of high traffic after more than 100,000 comments were submitted, revealing widespread opposition.
“We’re just looking to have a genuine conversation with the public about updating this comprehensive plan,” Everitt said.
Constitutional scholars were quick to cast doubt on the Park Service’s suggestion that protest organizers could be asked to repay the agency for the support and security it provides at large demonstrations. Experts say it is unlikely the protest policy would hold up in court due to the likelihood that doing so would discourage or prevent certain groups from exercising their First Amendment rights.
Organizers hosting rallies in the District are not required to pay for a permit, though they are asked to provide toilets and on-site medics, among other services, depending on the size of the demonstration.
Norton, who represents the District in Congress but is not allowed to vote, submitted her statement to the Park Service as an official public comment alongside various civil rights groups, including the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, which collected more than 32,000 signatures from people opposed to the suggested changes.
Though the proposal was introduced in August, more than 11,000 comments were submitted over the weekend, according to federal records.
It was not immediately clear how many comments were received for or against the policy proposals, but, according to online records, thousands of submitted comments contained words like “oppose,” “do not support” and “unconstitutional.”
Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a multi-page point-by-point takedown of the Park Service proposals last week, in which the organization scrutinized suggestions that protesters’ access to the White House sidewalk be limited — a provision that was included at the request of the Secret Service, Everitt said.
“The heart of the matter is clear,” Arthur Spitzer, legal co-director of the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., wrote in a blog post last week explaining the organization’s opposition. “President Trump might not like having protesters on his doorstep, but the First Amendment guarantees their right to be there.”