WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hundreds of thousands of people from across the country plan to pour into the nation’s capital to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration in late January. But the National Park Service has reserved most of D.C.’s iconic public spaces for the exclusive use of Trump’s Inaugural Committee, not just on Inauguration Day itself but for the weeks leading up to and following the ceremony. Protest groups will have no access to these spaces unless the Committee voluntarily gives up their permits, which they have no incentive to do.
Local legal groups, including the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, call this move unprecedented and unconstitutional, and they say they are weighing legal action.
“This blocking permit that the National Park Service filed is an affront to the First Amendment. It is a violation of free speech rights, and it is a violation of the democratic process, in which voices must be heard,” said Carl Messineo, the organization’s legal director. “Collective assembly is in the very first amendment to the bill of rights because it is so essential to the functioning of a vital and healthy democracy.”
“It is a violation of free speech rights, and it is a violation of the democratic process.”
The Park Service has granted Trump’s Inaugural Committee the right to reserve all of Constitution Avenue, all of Independence Avenue, Lafayette Park, the White House sidewalk, and the Ellipse at the base of Capitol Hill — from January 6 to January 30.
The Park Service confirmed to Fox 5 DC that they will not make the public spaces available to activist groups until Trump’s Inaugural Committee decides whether or not they will use them.
“What that means is that the National Park Service is giving Donald Trump the right to decide if, where, and whether people will be allowed to demonstrate against the incoming Trump Administration,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund who has fought in court for protesters’ rights for every inauguration since 2001.
Though the Park Service claimed it is following procedures established in in 2008, Verheyden-Hilliard said that Trump’s inauguration has drawn much more demand for protest permits than President Obama’s, giving the restrictions a bigger impact. “Before, groups who have wanted demonstration space have gotten demonstration space. Now, they’re being denied access.”
Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst released a statement saying his department is “actively reviewing the pending permit applications and, as always, is committed to accommodating as many permits as it can.”
But with just a few weeks until the inauguration, groups are scrambling to make alternative plans.
The organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, who are expecting more than 100,000 people from across the country to gather in D.C. the day after the inauguration, requested the use of the Lincoln Memorial, but have not yet been granted a permit.
Even the two pro-Trump groups who plan to demonstrate have not yet been granted permits. The leaders of Bikers for Trump, Chris Cox, warned the Washington Times the denial may lead to clashes with Trump protesters.
“I told [the Park Service] I had thousands and thousands of bikers coming into town, and if she didn’t give me a spot, they were going to be just mingling around and would end up hanging out where all the Trump protesters are, and there’s going to be big problems and then people are going to wonder why,” Cox said.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we need a permit to exercise our right to assemble.”
The anti-war group ANSWER Coalition is similarly stymied, its request to march with 10,000 people put on indefinite hold. Yasmina Mrabet, an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition, told ThinkProgress that she would be protesting in the streets no matter who was elected, and noted that her organization was given a permit to protest President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“Had Hillary Clinton won, we would be protesting her as well,” she said. “We are against war, we are against policies that target immigrants and Muslims. What matters to us is speaking out against a system that exploits and oppresses the vast majority of people, both in this country and around the world.”
Permit or no permit, the ANSWER Coalition plans to gather on Inauguration Day in Freedom Plaza — just a few blocks from the White House — and will march that Saturday in front of Trump’s new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we need a permit to exercise our right to assemble,” she said.