The National Park Service today released a statement upholding the arrest of five people last week for dancing in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. While the statement said the agency "supports dancing and other forms of expression in its parks," it added that in some areas of the National Park System dancing is inappropriate and banned.
The arrests were made last Saturday when an organized group entered the memorial obviously intent on challenging Park Service regulations that ban dancing as both inappropriate for the setting and a form of protest that needs a permit. Those interpretations were formally reached when a woman who was arrested in 2008 for dancing in the memorial on Thomas Jefferson's birthday later sued the agency -- unsuccessfully -- for infringement of her First Amendment rights.
In upholding a lower court's ruling that went against Mary Oberwetter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the Jefferson Memorial should have a “solemn atmosphere" and that silently dancing was an inappropriate form of expression there.
Furthermore, the appellate judges agreed with the lower court that the interior of the open-air memorial is "not a public forum," and that any demonstration needed a permit.
This morning the Park Service released the following statement:
In light of recent headlines we would like to dispel some myths and misconceptions on what is legal and what is not across the federal park system.
First, the National Park Service has a long and proud tradition of supporting and encouraging First Amendment rights and dancing in our parks is a great way to do this, whether it is on the National Mall on the 4th of July with tens of thousands of people or by yourself in front of a waterfall out west. In fact we may be the only federal agency that is required by statute to provide for “enjoyment.”
But just as you may not appreciate someone using a cell phone in a movie theater or someone dancing in front of your view of a great work of art, we believe it is not appropriate to be dancing in an area that memorializes some of the most famous Americans.
Visitors come from all over the globe to pay respect to, and read the words of Thomas Jefferson. These words, placed on the inner walls of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial chamber, are a moving testament of the good in humankind. We believe our visitors should be able to enjoy this experience without distractions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals agrees. In a May 17, 2011 decision, the court upheld National Park Service regulations that preserve the solemnity of the Thomas Jefferson National Memorial by prohibiting demonstrations of any kind within the chamber. The court ruled specifically on the act of dancing and found no infringement of First Amendment rights to free speech or free expression.
To protest the court’s decision, a group of dancers convened at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on May 30. They were warned multiple times that dancing was not allowed and chose to continue. Five people were arrested. Organizers of last week’s protest are now planning a larger demonstration this Saturday, June 4, advertising a “Dance Party @TJ.”
Nearly every day, the national parks of Washington, DC, are venues for the unfettered exercise of the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. Marches, protests, rallies and other events on the National Mall engage hundreds of thousands of citizens every year in civic and civil debate over serious issues facing our nation. We are proud that federal park land is used for these events.
There are over 2.4 acres of space available to dance or express yourself on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial grounds. We hope anyone who likes to dance in this area takes advantage of that space and allows our other visitors to enjoy a peaceful and inspiring experience in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial chamber.
U.S. Park Police Chief Theresa Chambers has not responded to requests concerning the conduct of Park Police in making the arrests -- videos of last Saturday's incident showed officers body-slamming someone to the ground and using apparent choke-holds and knees to pin a head on individuals who didn't seem to be threatening any of the officers -- and today's statement also didn't address that aspect of the matter.
But in a follow up request this morning Park Service spokesman David Barna said the matter was being reviewed.