Want to dance on federal property? Well, you can’t if you’re at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., a federal judge ruled Jan. 25.
U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote in a 26-page opinion that the memorial’s interior is not a public forum, ruling against a woman who was arrested along with 17 others while dancing in the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate the third president’s birthday on April 12, 2008, reported The Washington Post.
The celebrants were listening to music via headphones and danced to celebrate “the individualist spirit for which Jefferson is known,” wrote Alan Gura, the attorney for plaintiff Mary Oberwetter, in court papers.
U.S. Park Police Officer Kenneth Hilliard told the dancers to stop, and Oberwetter asked why and refused to comply. Hilliard then arrested her and charged her with demonstrating without a permit and interfering with an agency function, charges that were later dropped, the Post reported.
Oberwetter then sued the National Park Service in March 2009, saying the police actions infringed upon her rights of free expression and asking a judge to bar the government from stopping or preventing similar public gatherings in the future.
Bates disagreed, saying that Oberwetter, her friends and anyone else who wants to boogie in front of Thomas Jefferson’s statue has no right to groove.
Wrote Bates in his decision:
The purpose of the memorial is to publicize Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, so that critics and supporters alike may contemplate his place in history. The Park Service prohibits all demonstrations in the interior of the memorial, in order to maintain ‘an atmosphere of calm, tranquillity, and reverence.’ … The Memorial is akin to a temple or a shrine (both in terms of its purpose and its physical characteristics), not a place of public expression.”
As you may remember from your history classes, Jefferson was a man who believed fervently in the rights of people to freely express themselves and felt government should not restrict the ability of free people to air their grievances or speak in public. It’s curious then that a judge has ruled against people dancing at midnight — a time when surely they were alone at the memorial — to celebrate such a man, his works and his principles.
This ruling will likely be appealed, as it sets what free-speech advocates will argue as a dangerous precedent for the use of publicly-owned spaces. Many would agree that war memorials, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are hallowed places. They honor those in uniform who died for America, and families and friends still come to pray and think of those that died. The Jefferson Monument, in contrast, celebrates the writings and principals of a civilian — and do we want to establish a public monument to an elected leader as a shrine or temple, as the judge calls the monument?
We’ll let Jefferson have the last word here, quoting from a letter he wrote in 1795:
Being myself a warm zealot for the attainment and enjoyment by all mankind of as much liberty as each may exercise without injury to the equal liberty of his fellow citizens, I have lamented that … the endeavors to obtain this should have been attended with the effusion of so much blood.”