October, 1985, Volume 22, Number 9
Directly across the from street from the White House a sign proclaims "Welcome to Peace Park." Along the south side of Lafayette Park are a number of signs directing appeals for peace to President Reagan and all who pass. Reactions to the homemade signs are as varied as the people who view them, but complaints that the placards obstruct the view of the White House and detract from the attractiveness of the park have led the National Park Service to proposed new regulations for demonstrations in Lafayette Park.
The proposal, which applies only to Lafayette Park, prohibits signs larger than 4 square feet -- a drastic shrinkage of some of the present placards. The proposed rules would also make demonstrators liable to arrest if they strayed farther than 3 feet from their signs, and limit the number of signs per person to two.
The people who are literally behind the signs will feel the effects of the proposed regulations most dramatically. The large, semi-permanent shelter-like signs belong to people who maintain a constant vigil to protest nuclear arms. Winnie Gallant, of the Peace Park Anti-Nuclear Vigil, says that a "special type of person" is needed for the someone who can free themselves of job, family and other obligations in order to stay in the park with the signs. A constant vigil is necessary, according to Winnie, so that White House visitors, people activists, students and other people can stop by and join in the demonstration without devoting all their time to it.
The demonstrators claim that the proposed regulations would diminish their effectiveness by limiting the length of the message and by making the signs unreadable from the street and the White House visitors' gate, maintaining a constant vigil would be nearly impossible because the 4'x4' signs provide no shelter and must be continually attended. Lacking money and political power, the peace demonstrators feel that this is the only way they can work for peace.
The Park Service says What sparked the proposal to change the rules was complaints from citizens. Earle Kittleman, a Park Senrice spokesman, said, "People would visit Lafayette Park and see these signs and demonstrators and they'd look us up and complain, Some of them would say, 'Look, I'm in favor of free expression, but there ought to be limits." However, some visitors to the park feel that: the vigil provides a service by thrusting a crucial issue before the thousands of tourists who pass by weekly.
That is how last August the Park Service came to publish its proposal rules change in the Federal Register, spelling out what it wants made different about First Amendment activity in Lafayette Park, Kittleman explained. The required 60 day period for public comment ends on October 21st. After the chance for public comnent expires, the measure ]becomes law in another 30 days -- assuming no legal or or procedural obstaclle arises, such as a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization much concerned with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The ACLU's legal director, Art Spitzer, can't say at present whether they will sue, "We'll have to see what the final rules look like after October 21st before deciding" he said, It's clear that any legal challenge by the ACLU would hinge on the First Amendment freedom-of-expression guarantees.
The government concedes that Lafayette Park should serve as a staging area for all demonstrators wishing to post their messages across the street from the White House. But the rights of other visitors there have to be looked to as well, says Kittleman.
Meanwhile, Spitzer emphasizes the ACLU isn't arguing that people have an absolute right to do whatever they wish in Lafayette Park in the name of free speech, "The Constitution," he said, "certainly allows some reasonable limits on demonstrators there. But these proposed regulations aren't reasonable, They're the government trying to solve a small problem with a big hatchet."
It is coming down to questions of quantity, or degree, What size limit for a sign is too small to permit free expression? How many signs should a demonstrator be allowed to display? How far should a demonstrator be permitted to depart from a sign in Lafayette Park? The public can play some role in influencing how these questions are answered.
Comments, objections, and suggest.ions on the Lafayette Park rules proposals can be registered with the government until October 21, if they are sent to:
National Capital Region
National Park Service
1100 Ohio Drive, S,W.
Washington, DC 20242