The public spaces of Washington D.C. have long served as places of protest for Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. Now the Trump administration is trying to limit how demonstrators could access and use certain spaces, including closing most of the sidewalk in front of the White House.
In a new rule proposed by the National Park Service, which manages D.C. landmarks including the National Mall and the White House-adjacent Lafayette Park, the regulations around how those landmarks could be used would be changed.
“The proposed changes would modify regulations explaining how the NPS processes permit applications for demonstrations and special events,” reads the draft rule, as well as “identify locations where activities are allowed, not allowed, or allowed but subject to restrictions.”
These changes may include charging more for permits, requiring more advanced notice for demonstrations, or limiting the number of people allowed to use certain spaces. The rule also would make certain memorials off-limits to “preserve an atmosphere of contemplation” and establish “permanent security zones” where public access would be prohibited completely.
The implementation of such zones would require closing 80 percent of the sidewalk in front of the White House, a popular place for impromptu demonstrations. Last year, a new design was approved for the White House fence to deter people from climbing it.
While the privatization—and in some cases, militarization—of certain public spaces is problematic from a free speech perspective, according to the ACLU, the higher fees are more troubling as it would make the cost of holding certain large events prohibitive. “Fee requirements could make mass protests like Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 March on Washington and its ‘I have a dream’ speech too expensive to happen.”
Similar restrictions were attempted during the Vietnam War, but the ACLU successfully sued to keep areas of the National Mall and White House accessible on free speech grounds, according to the organization’s public comment.
The actions, while a dramatic shift from current policy, are perhaps not surprising from a presidential administration which has inspired some of the largest protests in decades—including a public demonstration which drew more people to the National Mall than the inauguration of that president.
Public comment is open until October 15.