The Secret Service has authorized people to carry signs as large as 3 feet by 20 feet at the Inaugural Parade in Washington, DC on January 20, 2009. How did the Secret Service arrive at a sign limitation of 3 feet by 20 feet? Does a sign measuring 4 feet by 21 feet conceal a weapon, or is it the container of simply too much freedom of speech? Regardless of any concern I might have with the Secret Service for their hypothetical sign restrictions on the wholly public Pennsylvania Avenue, they are eclipsed by the actual sign restrictions imposed on Inauguration goers by the Washington DC Metro.
If you are traveling in to Washington DC for the Inauguration, you’ll have to take the Metro — unless you can charter a bus or are rich enough to hire a limousine. Roads in to Washington, DC will be closed on Inauguration Day except to buses and limousines. If you don’t have a bus handy and you aren’t Warren Buffett, the Metro will be the only way to get to the Inauguration… and the Metro is banning signs and placards larger than 18 inches by 18 inches, or 324 square inches.
For people who aren’t rich, aren’t part of a bus caravan, or don’t already live in DC, this is a practical speech restriction. Try cutting out a piece of cardboard measuring 18 by 18 inches, writing something on it, then stepping across a street to try to read those words. You’ll find that you can’t express anything more than a three-word thought.
I’m frustrated by this de facto ban on large and even medium-size signs, in no small part because it doesn’t make practical sense. I might be able to understand it if the Metro’s rule were meant to prevent a person from taking up more than one seat’s space in a crowded metro car. But my body measures 22 inches wide from the tip of one shoulder to the tip of the other shoulder, and the height from my lap to the top of my head measures 33 inches, making a medium-sized 726 square-inch sign an object that would fit within my personal space on a metro seat. If I wanted to stand a sign in the space in front of my seat, a space occupied by my toes, the sign could be as much as 52 inches tall and not impinge on anyone else’s space on the Metro, giving me a largish sign size of 1144 square inches. Unless I’m really missing something here, inauguration-goers face speech restrictions that are arbitrarily, unnecessarily stringent.