NATIONAL PARK SERVICE officials have bent over backwards to accommodate the First Amendment rights of the Occupy D.C. protesters at McPherson Square. Those rights, though, must be carefully balanced against other public interests. That’s why federal officials are right to take seriously the warning from D.C. officials about the health and safety risks posed by the increasingly unseemly encampment. The time may well have come to reclaim this public space.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, under whose jurisdiction the Park Service falls, told us Friday that he will convene a meeting next week with the head of the Park Service, U.S. Park Police and others to try to “chart a path forward” for McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, where the Occupy protest is entering its fourth month. Most immediately, federal officials plan to undertake a joint assessment with D.C. officials of health and safety conditions at both sites.
Mr. Salazar was reacting to a letter from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) detailing concerns about conditions at McPherson Square. Inspection by the District’s director of health revealed a dangerous rat infestation as well as the potential for communicable disease, hypothermia and foodborne illness; there was also concern about the safety of makeshift heaters used by some inhabitants of the tents that crowd the square. “It falls to you to take immediate steps to remedy this dangerous situation,” Mr. Gray wrote, suggesting that at a minimum McPherson Square protesters be consolidated with their counterparts at Freedom Plaza, where conditions are more orderly.
Mr. Salazar, who said he has been to McPherson Square multiple times and receives regular reports, acknowledged increasing concern about conditions at the park: “There are reports of assaults — one a day, I was told.” That a Cabinet secretary is giving such personal attention to this ragtag protest — he was involved in the discussion to dismantle a structure that resulted in the arrest of more than 30 protesters last month — speaks to the thorny legal and political issues involved.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been especially critical of the Park Service’s handling of the protest; on Friday, he charged the Obama administration with wanting to avoid political embarrassment. Mr. Salazar told us he has yet to discuss the matter with President Obama and that all his decisions have been made in consultation with the Park Police and the Park Service. He agreed that officials of the District — whose businesses, residents and visitors have to deal with the nuisance of the protesters — are “one voice we need to listen to.”
Park service officials should not be faulted for going the extra mile in respecting the First Amendment rights of Americans in the nation’s capital. Moreover, blithe calls to simply clear out the protesters ignores the years of court rulings that have codified certain protections, including the freedom to set up tents and conduct 24-hour vigils. A federal judge has told the Park Service that, barring any emergency, it must give McPherson Square protesters 24 hours notice before evicting them.
Nonetheless, it’s becoming increasingly clear — from the exasperation of once-supportive District officials to Mr. Salazar’s own worried observations — that the balance between the rights of protesters and what’s good for the public has tipped. That’s something that needs to be righted by careful federal action.