Threatened by Civil Rights Lawsuit, Park Service Expedites Protest Permits
Following threats of legal action, federal agency in charge of permits confirmed it would clear groups to hold protests on and around National Mall
The National Parks Service (NPS) said Thursday it would grant permits to organizations planning to protest President-elect Donald Trump's swearing-in later this month in Washington, D.C., a win that comes after civil rights lawyers threatened to sue the agency.
"We believe that this is a significant victory for free speech. They are doing this under threat of litigation," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, told Reuters on Friday. The fund had written a letter (pdf) to the NPS on Thursday warning that it was in violation of the First Amendment.
As of Thursday, the Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition was the only group to have received a protest permit for the Inauguration Route on January 20. Two others, the American Constitution Society and the Black is Back Coalition, have been cleared to hold events near the National Mall, but not on the day of the ceremony.
The Women's March on Washington—which has added civil rights icons Gloria Steinem and Harry Belafonte as honorary chairs, and drawn the support of organizations like Planned Parenthood and collectives like the Pussy Hat Project—is expected to draw at least 200,000 protesters alone for its January 21 actions, making it potentially the biggest inauguration protest in history.
In stalling the process and refusing to grant clearances, NPS has been "obstructing free speech groups' abilities to organize activities and may entirely prevent some individuals from being able to carry out their constitutionally protected rights to free speech," the fund's letter warned. "Permits must be issued immediately unless the NPS is refusing to do so absent legal action."
Hours after the missive was sent, NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst issued a statement confirming the agency would begin issuing permits.
NPS typically reserves some areas on and around the National Mall for the proceedings, but as of Thursday, the Presidential Inauguration Committee had yet to confirm which locations they did not need to use. The dozens of organizations that had applied for permits said the committee was overstepping its bounds by stonewalling access to public space.
The ANSWER Coalition also said it was still fighting for additional space on Pennsylvania Ave.
"We think it's critically important for the people to not be intimidated, to not be silent and to use all public spaces to express themselves," the organization said Thursday. "We are protesting to show Trump and his cabinet, and let the whole world know, that the people of this country will not go backwards, that we oppose this far-right government of billionaire oligarchs and bigots, and we will fight it every step of the way, starting on Day One."