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National Park Service Erects Roadblocks to Free Speech at Inauguration

I have the intention of attending the presidential inaugural parade on January 20, 2009 with a sign calling for the next president (whoever he is) to fulfill his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

It’s a very simple plan to engage in free speech relevant to the day at hand at a public event in public space that has been declared to be open to the public, with 70% of the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue reserved for the public.

And yet… it’s not that simple.

I’ve had odd experiences at protests in Washington DC in the past, including having a regular old posterboard sign taken away by security because it represented a “potential weapon.” So I called the National Park Service’s permit office at 1-202-619-7225 and asked the staff whether I would be allowed to attend the parade and stand along the route. The response was simple: “You would just show up,” I was told. That sounded great, but then I said that I would bring a sign. “How large a sign?,” I was asked. I suggested a 23×35 inch sign, to which I was told “You would need a permit.” How about an 11×17 sign, I said? Again, “You would need a permit.” I then said, what about an even smaller sign, just the size of a sheet of 8.5×11 paper? The answer was “for any type of sign, you need a permit, especially if you’re protesting.” These are all actual quotes; I wrote them down.

The bottom line: if I want to attend the inaugural parade and have a sign, I have to have a permit. So you do you, and you, and you, and you. We all need permits.

This isn’t a small task. To obtain a permit, one needs to complete and mail in an application. No electronic submission is available, and I was told that due to security screening, it could take “up to weeks for the application to actually be received by the National Park Service.” “Up to two weeks?” I responded. “That’s not too bad.” The clarification: “No, no, up to weeks. T-O ‘to,’ not ‘two.’ Many weeks. I can’t tell you how many. It could be a while.” How many weeks? 6 weeks? 8 weeks? That’s December, and as the very polite National Park Service staffer pointed out, receiving an application is just the beginning of the process, which then can involve some weeks of negotiations and conference calls to work out the details.

The consequence of all this is that it has become a huge headache for any citizen to attend the presidential inaugural parade in Washington, DC and engage in an act of political free speech. The roadblocks erected by the National Park Service make it unlikely that an average citizen will be able to to successfully obtain a permit and engage in political demonstration at this event so central to our democracy.

That’s a problem.

[Update: I have since discovered that while sending a permit application to the National Park Service by mail detours the application into an anthrax-detecting facility for weeks, sending a permit application to the National Park Service by FedEx will get your application around the anthrax-detection facility and right into the hands of the NPS. That’s a $25 charge for “free” speech, but at least it will get your application there.]

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