FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2019, file photo, a visitor looks out toward the U.S. Capitol from the Washington Monument's observation level in Washington. The National Park Service has withdrawn a proposal that critics complained was designed to stifle protests near the White House and on the National Mall. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Park Service drops new rules for protests in Washington

October 28, 2019 - 3:06 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Park Service has withdrawn a proposal that critics complained was designed to stifle protests near the White House and on the National Mall.

The Park Service said in a statement Monday that it received more than 140,000 comments on its proposed changes, which included opening the door to charging protest organizers for such services as erecting and taking down barricades, trash removal and repairing harm to the grounds where protests occurred.

Each year, the agency issues about 750 permits for "First Amendment activities." Critics said that charging the organizers of those events would have made it harder for people to exercise their constitutional rights. The proposed rule also would have restricted how much of the sidewalk outside the White House is accessible to protesters.

There have been several large demonstrations on or near the National Mall since President Donald Trump assumed office. The Women's March in January 2017 brought protesters from throughout the country to Washington, and that has been followed by protests of the president's actions on climate change and guns, to name a few.

"President Trump might not like having protesters on his doorstep, but the First Amendment guarantees us the right to be there," said the American Civil Liberties Union's Kate Ruane. "The National Park Service's retreat should serve as a reminder that if the administration tries to come after our right to protest, it will have to get through thousands of ACLU members and supporters first."

The National Park Service said when it made its proposal that it would always support the First Amendment right of free speech and assembly. However, it wanted to know the public's views on whether it should attempt to recover costs when those seeking a permit have the means to cover those expenses.

At that time, officials said the Occupy DC demonstration, which took place in 2012, cost taxpayers about $480,000. The protesters sought to bring attention to social and economic inequality in the wake of the financial crisis and set up a makeshift tent camp that raised health concerns.

In a statement, the National Park Service said the intent of its proposed revisions was to maintain the public's opportunity to hold special events and right to demonstrate while outlining clear parameters that would protect the National Mall and President's Park for visitors.

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