Politics

Protest Group Fights for Access to Key Inauguration Spots

Appeals court to decide on Freedom Plaza, Trump Hotel locations

Supporters of Donald Trump stand in front of anti-Trump protesters outside The Trump Hotel on Oct. 26. Groups want access to a nearby spot for an Inauguration Day protest. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Demonstrators at Donald Trump’s inauguration won’t have access to two key points along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route — Freedom Plaza and the plaza in front of the newly opened Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office.

Civil rights groups say the Presidential Inaugural Committee has effectively frozen demonstrators out of those spots for the Jan. 20 event. The committee plans to set up bleachers along the parade route in those locations. That committee determines who gets bleacher tickets — and it ultimately answers to President-elect Trump.

Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition, known as ANSWER, has pressed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, seeking access to Freedom Plaza. The court will decide in the coming weeks whether the government has the authority to restrict demonstrations in the public space.

A lawyer for the nonprofit group, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, told a three-judge panel Monday that the government is denying its First Amendment rights by excluding any dissenting voice from the plaza, located between 13th and 14th Streets on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. The plaza is the one location along the route where people can rally and speak as a group, and the government is allowing the committee to decide which viewpoints get to be expressed there, Verheyden-Hilliard said.

“So it’s basically a free-speech exclusion zone and that’s true for different spaces along the sidewalks, including the space in front of the Trump Hotel, which now has significant meaning in terms of people’s desire to communicate to the incoming president,” Verheyden-Hilliard said after the hearing.

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A lawyer for the National Park Service, whose regulations bar demonstration permits for the plaza on Inauguration Day, told the judges that there is ample space on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk for demonstrations along the route, among other arguments.

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The judges are expected to issue a ruling on access to Freedom Plaza in time for Inauguration Day. Some protests are expected at the inauguration parade, particularly since Trump’s election has already sparked demonstrations in several cities across the nation. ANSWER is organizing one of the protests, which could draw thousands, and is soliciting donations to cover the cost of buses, leaflets, placards and other organizing expenses. 

Freedom Plaza is also a highly visible spot on the parade route, located in front of the National Theatre. Stands for media broadcasts will be erected there, because its location at the bend in Pennsylvania Avenue offers the best view down the parade route with the U.S. Capitol in the background.

The space around Trump Hotel, however, may remain more restricted even beyond the Inauguration Day events. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, where Verheyden-Hilliard is the executive director, has also filed litigation over the plaza there that features an 1889 statue of Benjamin Franklin.

ANSWER has staged demonstrations there before, but now has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit about who controls the permission for demonstration permits in that space.

The last time the group applied, the government said “we’ve given it to the Trump organization and you have to ask the Trump organization for permission to demonstrate on the public space in front of the Trump Hotel,” Verheyden-Hilliard said Monday.

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