THE NATIONAL Park Service has floated the idea of whether it should charge fees to groups that hold protests on the Mall. The reason cited by officials for this possible change is the cost to the federal government of providing security and other support for these events. But there would be a serious cost to our democracy if the government takes the unprecedented step of charging citizens for their rights to free speech and political protest. Officials should not give any more thought to this bad idea.
The possibility of imposing a fee, or requiring cost reimbursements from protesters, is among 14 proposed revisions to regulations governing events held on federal land in the District that have raised considerable concerns among constitutional rights advocates, who see an effort by the Trump administration to stifle protest in the nation’s capital. Under existing rules, the Park Service already has the authority to charge fees for “special use permit” events such as festivals or weddings, but not for activities related to speech or expression protected by the First Amendment. Each year, the agency issues about 750 permits for First Amendment demonstrations (compared with 1,500 for special events). A parks spokesman said there are enormous costs in supporting some of the larger demonstrations and “the federal government and taxpayers shouldn’t be required to underwrite the cost of somebody’s special event, whether it’s a concert, wedding or gathering of some sort.”
There’s a big difference between a Hollywood film crew shooting a scene for “Wonder Woman 1984” and citizens exercising their constitutional rights. One responsibility of the Park Service — indeed, its legal obligation — is to protect First Amendment activity. As the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found in a ruling during protracted litigation over Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, the “use of parks for public assembly and airing of opinions is historic in our democratic society, and one of its cardinal values.” If there is an issue of resources — and the Park Service has yet to make a convincing case of being overburdened — the solution is not to place restrictions on the public’s access to public spaces.
The comment period on imposing fees on protests closes Oct. 15, and an agency spokesman stressed that, at this point, it is not proposing a change but “just asking the question.” Here’s our answer: a resounding no.