Trump Administration Seeks to Stifle Protests Near White House and on National Mall

President Trump has a record of attacking the rights of protesters, from suggesting that protest be illegal to praising dictators who crush any kind of dissent.

Now, the Trump administration proposes to dramatically limit the right to demonstrate near the White House and on the National Mall, including in ways that would violate court orders that have stood for decades. The proposal would close 80 percent of the White House sidewalk, put new limits on spontaneous demonstrations, and open the door to charging fees for protesting.

Fee requirements could make mass protests like Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 March on Washington and its “I have a dream” speech too expensive to happen.

The public has until October 15 to comment on the plans, and on Monday, we submitted our formal written comment explaining why the planned changes are unconstitutional.

In 1967, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the federal government tried to impose severe limits on protests near the White House. The ACLU of the District of Columbia sued, and after years of litigation, the courts rebuffed the government’s effort and reminded the National Park Service, which administers these areas, that Lafayette Park is not Yellowstone and that the White House area and the National Mall “constitute a unique [site] for the exercise of First Amendment rights.” Under court orders, the park service issued regulations allowing large demonstrations, guaranteeing quick action on applications for permits, and accommodating spontaneous protests as much as possible.

Closing the White House sidewalk                                  

The park service plans to close 20 feet of the 25-foot-wide White House sidewalk, limiting demonstrators to a 5-foot sliver along Pennsylvania Avenue. This is perhaps the most iconic public forum in America, allowing “We the People” to express our views directly to the chief executive, going back at least to the women’s suffrage movement 100 years ago.

Suffragettes protesting outside of the White HouseWomen suffragists demonstrating in front of the White House in 1917

The closure would violate the earlier court order, which permits demonstrations by at least 750 people on the White House sidewalk and declares that any lower limit is “invalid and void as an unconstitutional infringement of plaintiffs’ rights to freedom of speech and to assemble peaceably and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”         

Existing fence outside of the White HouseThe existing fence outside of the White House

Proposed fence outside of the White HouseThe proposed fence outside of the White House

The park service didn’t offer any justification for closing the sidewalk. Even if it were based on security grounds, that wouldn’t pass muster because the White House fence is about to be replaced with a new, taller fence with special anti-climbing features, approved last year specifically to “meet contemporary security standards” while allowing the sidewalk to remain open.

As the Secret Service stated when the plans for the new fence were submitted for approval, “Our priority is to maintain the public’s access ... It is in fact a quintessential First Amendment site.” The Secret Service got it right. The park service proposal has no valid basis in security — it’s just an effort to keep the pesky protesters away.

Charging for free speech

An even more effective way to keep the pesky protesters away is to charge a fee for the right to protest. According to the new proposal, the park service is considering charging demonstrators for things like “sanitation and trash removal” and “harm to turf.” But of course, the park service does not plan to charge the 45 million non-demonstrators who visit the National Mall every year for the fencing and sanitation their presence requires or for the harm to the turf that they cause.

Park service regulations distinguish between demonstrations and “special events” — things like sports events, historical reenactments, and festivals. The park service has always charged for the costs of special events, but it now claims that some demonstrations have “elements that are special events” and that it is free to charge “administrative, equipment, and monitoring costs” for those “elements.” The proposal gives no clue about what those “elements” may be, but the courts have made clear that things like singing, dancing, and music in the context of demonstrations are fully protected by the First Amendment. Such “elements” shouldn’t make a demonstration subject to fees.

Managing public lands for the benefit of the American people is what Congress funds the National Park Service to do. That includes demonstrators just as much as tourists or hikers. While the park service may be strapped for funds, it cannot balance its budget on the backs of people seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.

Limiting spontaneous demonstrations

The right to protest now in response to unfolding events is a key part of freedom of speech. As Judge J. Skelly Wright recognized in the ACLU-DC lawsuit against the 1967 restrictions, “Timeliness is essential to effective dissent. Delay may stifle protest as effectively as outright censorship.”

In general, people must apply for National Park Service demonstration permits 48 hours in advance. But that requirement can be waived in urgent situations. Current regulations provide that the park service will accommodate spontaneous demonstrations if necessary resources and personnel “can reasonably be made available.” The proposed regulations would change that to “provided the NPS has the resources and personnel available to manage the activity.” (emphasis added)

The proposed regulations would also ban the use of a small stage or sound system unless a permit has been sought 48 hours in advance. The park service says it needs a minimum of 48 hours to evaluate the “safety concerns and resource impacts” of structures, but the park service doesn’t need 48 hours to know that a small stage or sound system on the National Mall is safe.

In addition to these lowlights, there are many other serious problems with the government’s proposed changes, which we detail in our written comments. The heart of the matter is clear: President Trump might not like having protesters on his doorstep, but the First Amendment guarantees their right to be there.


Every day across the nation, the ACLU is called on to defend all the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There's never been a more important time to support the ACLU and our effective work to protect civil liberties. If you like what you just read, help us continue to speak freely by donating today.

View comments (324)
Read the Terms of Use


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.


The streets and sidewalks belong to the people!

Dirk Diggler

Red States take more Federal dollars than they pay in. Red States have the highest rate per capita of Food Stamp and Welfare recipients. Conservatives were fine with Tea Party members protesting Obama but can’t take it when it comes back to bite them in the back side. As long as the racist are protesting about Americas first Black President it’s okay but let liberal women and minorities protest and they lose their mind.
Typical conservative racist republicans at work.


Current method of protesting has been to use bullying, intimidation and fear towards people who don’t agree with the protesters. Maybe the president is trying to create a space for others to visit who aren’t protesters

Theresa Sigler

Since you are supposed to be about ‘liberty’, it would be great if you’d support mine. Since I am a white Christin, I know you won’t. But that’s ok. I see you for who you are!


Oh, look!

Another white Christian who thinks they are oppresed with a church on every damn corner. and a new justice on the Supreme Court. Please. You are not oppressed, you just don't want to share power. You think freedom for all just means for all those who think like you. Equality look like oppression when all you have known is privilege.

Craig Brunell

I believe this is the Peoples House, if I wish to protest there its my American right, not truumphs sensibilities. Perhaps he should have stayed at the top lf nis ugly tower!


This coming the same day he had the nerve to call Democrats 'dangerous' is a real page from Hitler's playbook. I shudder....esp. with Kavanought on the Supreme Court.

gus smith

Enough. The road has already been blocked to traffic. Enough barricading our White House. Too noisy, go to that hotel we subsidize. Disgusting treatment proposed for American values.

Linda Hylle

It is our right as Americans to protest and demonstrate. Restricting our access to these areas is restricting our right to areas that belong TO US! trump LOVES WALLS. trump LOVES to separate himself from the masses (he only wants his base around him). We cannot allow him to be successful in this goal of restricting us from our entitled access.


Stay Informed