The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A victory for free speech on the Mall

People call for action on climate change outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 20.
People call for action on climate change outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 20. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE has withdrawn a proposal that would have imposed onerous restrictions on protests on the Mall and other federal land in Washington. This represents a full retreat by the Trump administration and, more important, a victory for the First Amendment. The plan had met with overwhelming opposition. “Their plan to suppress protest,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, “was met with the very force it was trying to suppress.”

Citing the feedback it had received from the public — more than 140,000 comments — the Park Service announced last Monday it was ending its effort to rewrite the regulations that govern speech and demonstrations on public lands under federal jurisdiction in Washington. The proposed overhaul unveiled in August 2018 by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would have imposed hefty and unprecedented fees on groups that hold protests on federal park lands in Washington. The ostensible reason was to offset the costs of such things as security, trash removal and grass replacement, but the agency presented no convincing evidence of being overburdened. Moreover, the proposed regulations didn’t stop at fees but included other changes that would have stifled dissent, including closing off more public space. If enacted, the proposed changes would have fundamentally altered Washington’s historic and rightful place as a locus of national protest.

The Park Service has the responsibility and the legal obligation to protect First Amendment activity, and so it is good that officials came to their senses and dropped this plan. But the real credit goes to the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which first raised the alarm about the changes, and the hundreds of organizations of all stripes that joined in opposing the plan during the comment period. Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard said they were prepared to go to court; they had put together a strong administrative case.

“Good to have a victory like this,” Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard said, pointing to what she said are lessons useful beyond this fight: Take an uncompromising, principled approach and adopt a strong, united message, and it’s possible to defeat this president and defend democratic norms.

Read more:

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard and Carl Messineo: The Trump administration wants to tax protests. What happened to free speech?

Max Boot: Protest is as American as football. Why doesn’t Trump get it?

The Post’s View: Ryan Zinke won’t be missed