Published on Friday, January 19, 2001 in the Washington Post
Inaugural Demonstrators, Police Go to Court
Judge Will Rule This Morning on Opening Freedom Plaza to Protesters
by David Montgomery
Lawyers for protesters and law enforcement agencies dueled in U.S. District Court yesterday over whether security measures for the inaugural parade threaten First Amendment rights of demonstrators.
Judge Gladys Kessler challenged both sides with probing, sometimes barbed questions. The complaint seeks to win full access to Freedom Plaza for protesters and to overturn regulations. Kessler said she will rule at 10 a.m. today.
The dispute arose after the National Park Service granted several permits for demonstrations along Pennsylvania Avenue and the Secret Service announced that for the first time, every parade-goer will have to pass through a police checkpoint. The demonstrators say the checkpoints could be used to single them out, and they say the permit granted for Freedom Plaza is a sham, because most of the plaza is filled with bleachers for supporters of George W. Bush.
Referring to funneling so many people through police checkpoints, Kessler said, "That's going to make a whole lot of people awfully mad on the day of the inauguration, but that's not my . . . problem." Other checkpoints are reserved for those with special tickets to the White House reviewing area.
Turning to the National Park Service's plan to reserve most of Freedom Plaza for bleachers for the Presidential Inaugural Committee even though demonstrators also applied for it, Kessler said to Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Craig Lawrence: "It seems to me you're in violation of your own regulations. . . . The whole [permit] process I have to say, is, to me -- I have to find a polite word, which I can't find -- bizarre."
The regulation in question holds that permits are not granted more than a year in advance of an event. Yet, in this case, the Park Service first reserved Pennsylvania Avenue in November 1999. Lawrence responded that though the Park Service applied for the permit on behalf of inaugural planners more than a year in advance, it didn't actually grant the permit until within a year.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney for the International Action Center, argued that the permit was mishandled in a more significant way. She said that in making the November 1999 reservation, the Park Service neglected to include Freedom Plaza among the spots requested for inaugural planners. The permit application only mentions the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue, not the plaza. Therefore, reasoned Verheyden-Hilliard, her clients ought to have exclusive use of Freedom Plaza.
Lawrence challenged that, referring to a Park Service affidavit that indicated the permit application covers the plaza. The Park Service ultimately offered the demonstrators the western edge of the plaza, with 35 feet fronting on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Lawrence cast the situation as an example of the government going to great lengths to satisfy a variety of simultaneous demands -- from parade participants, ticket-holders, the general public, demonstrators -- while also guaranteeing the safety of the president. "You have a significant variety of interests, all of which have a place along Pennsylvania Avenue, all of which have been accommodated by the Park Service," he said.
At the same time, he added, the president's safety "is a paramount concern that must be recognized."
The attorneys clashed on how much of a threat the demonstrators are. In an affidavit, the Secret Service said the security measures are being undertaken after such incidents as the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as the wave of recent demonstrations, including those in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, in Washington against the World Bank, and in Philadelphia and Los Angeles at last summer's national political conventions.
But Verheyden-Hilliard said the government came to court with no evidence that the demonstrators are violent.
Given all of the requirements of a safe, large, national ceremony, Lawrence argued that the restrictions meet well-established tests set forth in First Amendment case law. He said the restrictions are narrowly tailored, indifferent to the content of the speech being regulated, and still offer avenues for expression.
Prompted by Kessler's asking what would happened if she showed up at a checkpoint in her "voluminous raincoat," Lawrence spelled out in detail the rules that will be followed. Police and Secret Service agents will ask people with bulky coats to open them. They will inspect packages and containers, looking for weapons or objects that could be used as weapons. They will not allow signs on sticks thicker than three-fourths of an inch. Police must have an "articulable suspicion" to single anyone out for a more rigorous search.
Verheyden-Hilliard maintained that the checkpoints could have a "chilling effect" on demonstrators, and she said they will cause such bottlenecks that they will keep the demonstrations from achieving impressive numbers. But she declined to suggest a better plan because she said that is not her clients' job.
The demonstrators appeared certain to emerge with at least one victory. Their suit seeks to overturn a D.C. law that forbids giving a speech in a public space without permission from the chief of police. They said that police have told them they will enforce that law at the inauguration.
An incredulous Kessler noted that the U.S. District Court had shot down as unconstitutional virtually the same law 35 years ago.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company