Sign Rules Overturned By Judge

U.S. Appeals, Says White House Protests Pose Risk

By Stephen J. Lynton
Washington Post Staff Writer

A federal judge has struck down a series of regulations limiting the use of signs and other belongings by demonstrators on the sidewalk in front of the White House.

U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant held that the rules, imposed last year by the National Park Service, violated the First Amendment rights of demonstrators to seek redress of grievances. He termed the rules "oppressive," "unjustified," "overbroad and unreasonable."

The government immediately appealed Bryant's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Yesterday evening, the appellate court issued a temporary stay, permitting the controversial regulations to remain in effect at least until next Wednesday.

John Vanderstar, a lawyer representing the White House Vigil for the ERA Committee and several other demonstrators, hailed Bryant's decision as a "very strong and important First Amendment ruling."

In asking the appeals court to stay, or temporarily set aside, the effect of Bryant's ruling, government lawyers criticized the federal judge for showing a "casual approach to the security of the president." They contended that the rules are needed to prevent concealment of explosives and use of signs as weapons against police or as devices for scaling the White House fence.

The rules, which took effect on Sept. 2 after an initial series of legal skirmishes, restrict the size of signs used in demonstrations, prohibit wooden signs and hollow metal supporting poles and bar demonstrators from leaving packages on the White House sidewalk.

Federal officials argued that the restrictions on signs and belongings were designed to minimize possible security threats as well as to give tourists a clear view of the White House and maintain access to the White House sidewalk for pedestrians.

Group that challenged the rules argued that the restrictions did not significantly improve presidential security and appeared to have been drawn up for political aims. They cited a Jan. 13, 1983, memo from former Interior Secretary James G. Watt objecting to demonstrations in front of the White House. The protesters, backed by American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, said the rules would impede lawful demonstrations.

In his ruling signed Thursday, Bryant said: "No one who has lived through the past two decades can doubt the importance of protecting our presidents from those who would do them harm, and no reasonable person can dispute that some restrictions on freedom of expression may be tolerated in pursuit of this pressing public interest."

But the judge, who presided during a seven-day trial in December, added that it "does not seem proper that peaceful demonstrators should be made to forgo their activities in order to allay the fears of security forces which are based on remote possibilities."

Although he upheld three provisions, Bryant rejected nearly all the rules, criticizing them one by one. The requirement that a demonstrator maintain actual physical contact with a sign is oppressive, and has little or nothing to do with security or any other governmental interest. The prohibition against holding a sign in a stationary position less than three feet from the ledge is of similar character."