Back in October, I called the National Park Service Capital Division, the governmental body with regulatory jurisdiction over the allocation of space for the Inauguration. At the time I was told by the Park Service staffer I spoke with that if a citizen were to carry a sign to the January 20, 2009 Inaugural Parade of any size, even if he or she were just doing this as a single person, she or he would have to apply to their office for a permit. On November 13, National Park Service representatives gave me a different message in a follow-up conversation: that independent groups of 25 or less could come to the Inaugural Parade and engage in political demonstration with signs and without a permit.
Since that conversation, I’ve felt some relief on behalf of our constitution’s 1st amendment rights, but I’ve also felt uneasy: given this one change, could the Park Service tell citizens, or even me, something to the contrary later on?
Fortunately, on Friday December 4 I had a third conversation with the National Park Service, this time with Capital Division permit specialist Robbin Owen. Ms. Owen consented to have our phone conversation recorded. As a consequence, I can document that Ms. Owen stated the following National Park Service position on political demonstration at the Inaugural Parade during our conversation about my pending permit for a pro-constitution inaugural demonstration on 1-20-09:
As you know, it’s going to be a large Inauguration with several thousand visitors, and there will be limited space on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk. Now, if we issue you a permit, you are going to be restricted to just one small area. But that’s not to say that you’re going to have the general public mixed in with you.
Now, if you have 25 people or less, that does not require a permit. You can carry your signs and walk the sidewalk.
That’s iron-clad documentation. Ms. Owen is on audio declaring this to be the National Park Service stance, it’s backed up by Code of Federal Regulations 36:7.96, and if push comes to shove and someone tries to keep demonstrators without permits from the Inaugural Parade route, we have an audio recording of a statement to the contrary.
So go ahead, America: assemble freely, speak, and if you are so inclined, petition the government for the redress of grievances in Washington, DC on Inauguration Day. It’s your right. At least this time around, the government has declared its intention to respect that right.