The National Park Service has floated a trial balloon about charging fees to groups which hold protests on the National Mall in Washington DC. Officials behind the change say the reason is the cost of providing security and support for events which take place between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial.
Democracy will pay the price if the government takes the step of charging citizens for the right of free speech and political protest.
Requiring reimbursement from protesters is one of 14 proposed ideas which revise the regulations governing events held on federal property inside the district. Most see it as an effort by the current administration to stifle protest.
Under the current rules, the NPS already can charge a fee for ‘special use permits’ for festivals or weddings. The NPS is not allowed to charge for actions related to speech or expression as protected by the First Amendment.
The Park Services issues, annually, 750 permits for First Amendment demonstrations and 1,500 for special events.
In the 1960s, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided that protests’ use of parks “for public assembly and airing of opinions is historic in our democratic society.”
The concept of using public parks to facilitate political opposition goes back centuries.
The original famous speaker’s corner is in the northeast niche of Hyde Park in London. There have been other areas designated as ‘speaker’s corner’ in other parks in London and some have been set up in other nations.
Speakers can hold court on any topic as long as the police feel the speeches are lawful. One myth says there is immunity from the law with no subjects and topics forbidden. In practice the police intervene when they receive a complaint.
The initial official Speakers’ Corner beyond London was christened in Nottingham in 2009. It was inaugurated by Jack Straw, the UK Justice Secretary, on 22 February 2009.
“Speakers Corners,” In America
Elon University’s Speakers Corner
Tom L. Johnson, the radical and reforming Mayor of Cleveland (1901–1909), memorialized the north-west quadrant of Public Square to Free Speech, as in Hyde Park.
The University of California at Berkeley had a free speech venue in front of Sproul Plaza until 1964.
Elon College (now known as Elon University) created a Speakers’ Corner on campus. No persons from outside the university may speak without a permit.
Washington Square Park (Chicago) saw Bughouse Square in Chicago, known as a free speech site from the 1910s to the 1960s.
The pedestrian-only area of Pennsylvania Avenue on the north side of the White House in Washington, D.C. has become a de facto speaker’s corner.
Karl Dean, the Mayor of Nashville, designated a space for live music in the south-west corner of Centennial Park (Nashville), calling it Musicians Corner.
The People’s Platform at Federal Hall, New York
The National Park Service is working with city officials on a new design at Federal Hall. In broad terms, the plans will create a series of platforms on the steps and around the plinth of George Washington’s statue for the celebration of all forms of free expression – from events in which speakers from all backgrounds can speak freely about the ideas and issues which move them to performances of theater, dance and music which express common humanity.
The NYCLU is monitoring the city’s growing threat to free speech.
Threat Assessment in New York
The New York Civil Liberty Union released its latest ‘Free Speech Threat Assessment’ which reports on risks to the right to protest due to heavy-handed policing and harassment.
The NYCLU has been monitoring and responding to protesters’ needs since the Occupy Wall Street days in Zuccotti Park. The ‘threat assessments’ though have been around since at least the Republican National Convention in 2004.
Mainstream media has reported on policing protest activity involving excessive use of force. The periodic “Free Speech Threat Assessments” highlight repeated incidents of under-the-radar harassment by law enforcement against protestors. The reports show law enforcement wrong-headed approach is more pervasive and is a deterent to freedom of expression and assembly.
Each report summarizes the growing trend in NYPD’s management of protests and highlights an example of law enforcement’s harassment toward First Amendment activity.
Reporters, legal observers and the public all have the right to observe, take pictures and document police activity. In spite of these there have been numerous reports of cops unjustly prohibiting journalists and civilians from taking photographs and video footed and some officers have broken or confiscated cameras.
Arkady Bukh, a noted New York criminal defense lawyer said, “Protesters have the right to equal enforcement of the laws. Despite the Fourth Amendment right not to be arrested without cause, protesters are routinely arrested and harassed due to selective enforcement by police.”
Freedom of expression, along with freedom of the press and freedom of religion are all supported by the strict separation of church and state. Each is protected under the glass dome of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and are guaranteed to all Americans.