Proposal on DC protests draws 60,000 comments

A proposal that would change how protests can be held around some of the capital’s most iconic sites has attracted a sizable public response, including opposition from several Democratic members of Congress.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who is the District of Columbia’s voice in Congress, said Monday that the National Park Service’s arguments “do not hold water” and she would ask her colleagues in Congress to join her in opposition.

The park service announced in August that it was considering charging fees for protests and other demonstrations on the land it manages in the Washington area, such as the National Mall. It also proposes permanently restricting public access to several stretches of the White House fence line that have been closed, in some cases for years, under temporary restrictions.

The agency received 60,466 comments, according to its online database, by the time the public comment period closed Monday night.

The park service cast the changes as being focused on public safety.

“We want to have a genuine conversation with the public,” spokesman Brent Everitt told CNN in a statement, and “permit fees and cost recovery considerations are just one part of that overall conversation.”

But free speech advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union argued the changes would “squelch free speech.”

“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,” wrote the ACLU’s Arthur Spitzer.

Currently, the park service charges fees for special events, such as concerts, but not for demonstrations.

The proposal says the agency wants to consider charging protest organizers fees “to allow the NPS to recover some of the costs of administering permitted activities that contain protected speech.”

Several Democrats in Congress wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the proposal is “troubling.”

“While the recuperation of costs may be an appropriate standard for special events that are celebratory or entertainment-oriented, the proposed shift could have the disastrous result of undermining the freedoms of expression and assembly,” wrote the group, led by Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Raul Grijalva of Arizona.