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Advocacy Groups Come Together Against Restrictions On Protests On Public Lands


This week, a coalition of well-known advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress. They included the libertarian Charles Koch Institute and the March For Life but also the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. The issue that united right and left - new rules proposed by the National Park Service that would impact protest in and around Washington, D.C. Think the National Mall and in front of the White House. Now, this letter is on top of more than 70,000 responses the Park Service received during its recent open comment period.

To talk more, we're joined by Kate Ruane of the ACLU. Welcome to the program.

KATE RUANE: Thank you, Audie. It's wonderful to be here.

CORNISH: What is it about this issue you think that's bringing together such an interesting mix of voices?

RUANE: I think what brings together such a broad base of people with such diverse views is that the National Mall and the national parks within the national capital region are the quintessential place for the freedom of speech in our country. They are where you go to protest. They're where you go to speak directly to your government. And regardless of your point of view, they should be available to you to do so.

CORNISH: Help us understand what these rules would look like for an organization that was trying to stage a protest. What would these mean in reality?

RUANE: Sure, absolutely. So let's take the sort of stealth proposal to close 80 percent of the White House sidewalk as an example. In our research, we found pictures of women's suffrage activists standing right in front of that fence holding signs requesting the right to vote. And you can draw a line from them straight through to protests for immigration reform not long ago. Closing that particular area - that is where you go to speak directly to the chief executive. If you cannot access that space, your ability to get your message across not just to the president, but to the country itself, has been stifled, has been chilled.

And another that comes to mind is that there is a proposal that would change the way that they make resources available when spontaneous demonstrations occur. And in this day and age, I find that to be particularly concerning because we get our news more quickly than we ever have in the past. There are far more occasions for the need for spontaneous protests, for spontaneous coming together, for example, for a prayer vigil if a tragedy happens. That raises concerns - obviously, First Amendment concerns - but it also raises concerns just about who we are as a people.

CORNISH: Let me jump in here. So another proposal would be to impose new fees for protest groups. Given there's something, like, 700 demonstrations a year in these spaces, isn't the Park Service within its right to say this is expensive, right? There's security. There's cleanup. Why not have groups chip in?

RUANE: What we basically say is that whether you're able to express your First Amendment rights, whether you're able to engage in protests should not depend on your ability to pay. What the National Park Service needs to do in order to be able to accommodate First Amendment activities is definitely of concern. And we're willing to work with them. But we need to make sure that everyone has access and that your access does not depend on your ability to pay.

CORNISH: Today during testimony before a House committee, the acting Park Service director said, look; these are just ideas. They're taking public input into consideration. If the Park Service goes through with this, will you sue?

RUANE: Well, it's not my decision whether we sue or not. But it is certainly something that the ACLU has done in the past. We just sued the state of South Dakota for passing a law and enacting a law that would restrict the right to protest. So it is certainly something that would be on the table and that we would consider. But I can't answer that question for these specific rules at this time.

CORNISH: That's Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. Thank you for speaking with us.

RUANE: Thank you.