WASHINGTON ― A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld as “content-neutral” a rule that barred an anti-Trump group from protesting along a portion of the inaugural parade route President-elect Donald Trump is expected to traverse on Jan. 20.
The Act Now To Stop War and End Racism, or ANSWER, Coalition had challenged the rule, which sets aside “priority” seating for ticketed parade-goers in Freedom Plaza and other areas, as a violation of protesters’ First Amendment rights.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the rule, which covers public spaces along the route that are managed by the National Park Service, doesn’t discriminate against specific viewpoints and thus is constitutional.
“The First Amendment requires that any reasonable, content-neutral regulation limiting expression along the parade route leave ample space available for peaceful demonstrations,” explained U.S. Circuit Judge Nina Pillard. “The First Amendment does not, however, support ANSWER’s claim of a right to displace spectator bleachers with its own demonstration at Freedom Plaza.”
The unanimous ruling was joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Sri Srinivasan and Patricia Millett; all three judges are appointees of President Barack Obama. ANSWER first filed the case in 2005, prior to the second inauguration of George W. Bush, and the dispute has been ongoing in the courts.
“This case presents a controversy likely to arise every four years,” Pillard wrote. She noted that ANSWER “has protested both Republican and Democratic inaugurations” in the past.
Under the National Park Service regulation, 13 percent of the 1.2-mile stretch between the Capitol and the White House may be used by the inaugural committee for bleachers to accommodate whoever it pleases. The ANSWER Coalition charged in court that the open area right in front of the route by Freedom Plaza was perfect for a mass demonstration, and that the rule barring demonstrations there meant that the agency “unconstitutionally prefers the government’s message” to any other.
Pillard reasoned that the regulation doesn’t displace any particular speaker or point of view because, in theory, anyone in the ticketed area may still adhere to the protesters’ message. And the rule applies to everyone equally.
“Nothing in the regulation would prohibit a ticketholder to the Inaugural Committee’s bleacher area from publicly endorsing ANSWER’s message,” Pillard wrote. In the same section of the ruling, the judge observed that the rule also allows non-ticketholders to sit in the ticketed area if a particular seat is unclaimed 10 minutes before the parade passes through.
“The regulation also equally excludes anyone who might elbow into the reserved area, regardless of whether she or he wishes to protest, show support, or simply get a better view,” she added.
Hewing to similar precedents, the court ruled that the regulation ultimately “is a reasonable and content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation of a public forum.”
Even though the protesters lost, the court recognized that the ANSWER Coalition already has an answer to its dilemma. It’s secured an alternate permit to demonstrate in a prime spot along Pennsylvania Avenue: the U.S. Navy Memorial Plaza.
“We have succeeded in achieving what Donald Trump has tried to avoid at all costs, which is to create space along the Inauguration Route for people to speak out against his right-wing agenda,” read a Jan. 5 news release, which also said the group opposes the incoming “far-right government of billionaire oligarchs and bigots.”
A dress rehearsal of the parade with a Trump stand-in was conducted Sunday.