The National Park Service is quashing dissent by blocking access to public space for those who want to demonstrate before, during and after President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration, Washington civil rights attorneys said Wednesday.
Attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund — who has successfully litigated on behalf of protesters in Washington for more than a decade — threatened legal action against the park service if it does not rescind a permit the agency itself took out to block groups from using land around the White House and the National Mall for demonstrations.
The park service historically reserves space for use by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, but Verheyden-Hilliard said the denial of protest permits has gone too far this time and is unconstitutional.
"This is public land. This land belongs to all of us. The park service's role is only to act as a neutral administrator and steward of public land," she said. "They have done a massive land grab, to the detriment of all those who want to engage in free speech activities."
The park service and activists agree that Trump's election has prompted an unusually large number of groups to seek protest permits, including organizers of a planned women's march on Washington the day after the inauguration. That group has not received a permit to gather at the Lincoln Memorial.
Twenty groups have applied for permits, and those applications are all classified as pending, according to park service records. That's about four times the number of groups that asked to protest during previous inaugurations, park service spokesman Mike Litterst said.
The park service said in a statement that in reserving space for inaugural activities, it followed regulations that have been in place since 2008 and upheld by the courts. Among the spaces it has reserved are the Ellipse and Lafayette Park on either side of the White House.
"The park service is actively reviewing the pending permit applications and, as always, is committed to accommodating as many permits as it can," Litterst said in the statement.
But Verheyden-Hilliard said no groups have been denied permits in the past for activities around the inauguration.
The park service reserved the spaces nearly a year ago, according to the agency's permit application obtained by the attorneys. The practical effect has been to empower Trump's inaugural committee to decide what happens on the land and who gets to use it, Verheyden-Hilliard said.
In the past, inaugural committees have let the park service know what land they won't be using, and then permits have been issued, Litterst said. The park service is awaiting word from Trump's inaugural team about its plans. Verheyden-Hilliard said activists are concerned that the inaugural committee will run out the clock on dissidents and she will take legal action in a bid to prevent that.