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National Park Service Changes Its Tune on DC Inaugural Protest

This morning, I called the National Park Service — twice — for information on obtaining a permit for a demonstration at the Washington, DC Inauguration Parade on January 20, 2009. On multiple points, the information I obtained today was quite different than the information I’d received earlier from people at the very same number. I feel the need to document these differences. This post will be long, but if you’re interested in the logistics of DC protest then please, bear with me.

On October 20, 2008, I called the National Park Service Capitol Region 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 while in conversation.

My response to this call was to send in a permit application by FedEx to demonstrate not just for myself, but for up to 500 other individuals, trying to secure a space along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route at which citizens would be allowed to hold signs calling on America’s new president to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Last week, when I called the National Park Service to check on the status of my permit application, I was told that my permit had not been acted upon or even assigned to a staff member for review because the Park Service prefers to wait until closer to an event to review permit applications. In the meantime, I was told, I should not begin public organizing for an event, since the event might not be permitted.

But today, when I called the same National Park Service office, I was told that my permit application had not been acted upon for a different reason: that “the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC) has not been formed yet. After they form, they will release areas that they’re not using, so they get first priority,” and that “the Presidential Inauguration Committee has no timeline for formation — we don’t know when that will happen.” “We’re waiting here, too, just like you are,” said the very polite person at the National Park Service. (Responses in quotes here are also written verbatim from conversation.)

Another very helpful difference was that this time, the National Park Service referred me to the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR): 36 CFR 7.96, to be exact. So I hung up the phone and read:

(4) Permit processing. (i) Permit applications for demonstrations and special events are processed in order of receipt, and the use of a particular area is allocated in order of receipt of fully executed applications, subject to the limitations set forth in this section. Provided, however, that the following national celebration events have priority use of the particular park area during the indicated period.

…(F) Inaugural ceremonies. The White House sidewalk and Lafayette Park, exclusive of the northeast quadrant, for the exclusive use of the Inaugural Committee on Inauguration Day.

I called the National Park Service right back, got the same staff member on the line I’d spoken to before, and asked why permit application processing had to be delayed, since in federal regulations it is specified that the Inaugural Committee had control over the White House sidewalk and Lafayette Park. Why couldn’t consideration of permits for other areas — namely, the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue — go right ahead?

The response: “It’s first come, first served. The Presidential Inauguration Committee applied for a permit for Pennsylvania Avenue first, so they have first priority.”

When did the Presidential Inauguration Committee apply for a permit?

The helpful staff member at the National Park Service put me on hold to look it up. Her response: “They applied for that back in October.”

Well, I applied back in October, too, I responded. What date in October did the Presidential Inauguration Committee apply for a permit? And, I added, didn’t you tell me that the permitting process couldn’t proceed now because the Presidential Inauguration Committee hadn’t formed yet? How could they have applied for a permit if they hadn’t formed?

The helpful staff member put me back on hold and came up with a new response: “They applied for the permit on July 22. The permit that was submitted was from the National Park Service on behalf of the Presidential Inaugural Committee that will form.”

That part of the conversation pretty much dried up. But before I thanked the National Park Staffer for her time and hung up, I asked two more questions. The response I got floored me:

“If I show up to the inaugural parade without a sign, will I be allowed to attend?,” I asked. “Of Course,” the NPS staffer replied. OK, so that wasn’t much of a showstopper. But then I asked a follow-up: “If I show up to the inaugural parade with a sign, will I be allowed to attend?” The one word answer: “Yes.”

This was a direct contradiction of what I’d been told by the National Park Service in October, and I was so surprised that I asked the helpful staffer to repeat herself a few times, just to make sure I’d heard it right. She not only reassured me on this point, but also directed me right back to 36 CFR 7.96: which reads:

Demonstrations involving 25 persons or fewer may be held without a permit provided that the other conditions required for the issuance of a permit are met and provided further that the group is not merely an extension of another group already availing itself of the 25-person maximum under this provision or will not unreasonably interfere with other demonstrations or special events.

Now that’s a game changer. It changes the entire field of possibility for Inauguration Day political demonstrations. I’ll have some thoughts to share on this soon.

5 comments to National Park Service Changes Its Tune on DC Inaugural Protest

  • Ahh, I love the smell of bureaucracy in the morning. Smells like…a waste of time and resources.

  • Ralph

    Keep it up, Jim.

    Like your research on Unity 08, it’s hilarious and sad, all at the same time.

    Fine absurdist drama we get in the place of representatives and public servants!

  • AT

    Hmmm those “free speech zones” are getting rare… Used to be that the entire US was a free speech zone. Now it’s just a few spots in the middle of nowhere that the government can’t seem to locate for us. Oh well, let’s just go out and shop like King George told us to.

  • Jim

    Hang on, AT, and don’t go shopping just yet… pay attention to those last few paragraphs. I’m writing about the implications today.

  • Ben Masel

    Interesting that they’re telling you that the Inaugural Committee application came first, but telling me the 900 block North side was first applied for by “Change We Can Believe.”

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