Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 17 1984
By STEVE FARNSWORTH, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON—Across the street from the grandeur of the White House, amid the gawking tourists and scurrying bureaucrats, William Thomas sits defiantly in a carefully manicured park with his brochures, press releases and huge "Ban the Bomb" signs.
At least, that is what he does when he is not in court. Thomas, arrested earlier this month for the 22nd time in three years, is at the center of a legal controversy involving at least three law enforcement agencies and the occasional conflicts among free speech, presidential security, tourists' rights and public health.
On June 6, the U.S. Park Police rounded up Thomas and six other demonstrators under a controversial Reagan Administration rule prohibiting camping in the park. The Interior Department, which runs the park, says the rule is tended to protect the land for tourists and nearby office workers, not to harass Thomas and other protesters..
But the Community for Creative Nonviolence, another protest group, challenged the rule in federal courts last year and won a preliminary decision in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which held, 6 to 5, that the prohibition on sleeping in the park unconstitutionally violated the group's right to free speech. The government appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide on the issue later this year.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court has told the Park Police that it can continue enforcing the Interior Department's rule.
As for Thomas, a bearded, straggly haired 33-year-old from New Mexico, he is out of custody. At the beginning of the fourth year of his around-the-clock, around-the-calendar peace protest, he is busy repairing the signs that were damaged by police during his last arrest.
"I have battled one police department after another," he said. "There seems to be a concentrated effort on the part of the Secret Service, the Park Police and the District of Columbia Police to block my freedom of expression."
Interior Department officials, who are responsible for managing the two-square-block plot of land called Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, see matters differently: They issue 800 to 1,000 permits a year for demonstrations and special events in Washington but not for camping, which in their view would spoil the park for others.
"We fear an overutilization of the park, a strain on the resources," said Richard Bobbins, deputy solicitor for National Capital Parks, which, like the Park Police, is a branch off the Interior Department.
The Park Police believe that tourists have a right to a clear view of the White House, unobstructed by signs as tall as eight feet. Also, they want the Secret Service to be able to protect the President without having to worry about what might be hidden behind those signs.
Sebastian Graber, the lawyer who sometimes defends Thomas, said the Interior Department rule against camping is so vague that it allows the Park Police to make arrests on a whim. "The protesters have got to have some accommodating life-support materials for their vigil," he said.
And Thomas, Lafayette Park's senior protester, has reduced the life-support materials to a minimum. He pays no rent, accepts food and other contributions from charities and friends, and goes to the homes of supporters to wash up. In the winter, rather than risk looking like a camper by using a sleeping bag, he wears two parkas and several pairs of long underwear.
Thomas' precautions notwithstanding, Park Police used the prohibition on camping June 6 the justification for arrests. Police said the demonstrators injured an officer during the arrests, and three of the protesters, including Thomas, were charged with assault on a federal officer.
Despite what they regard as harassment, the protesters have returned to the park.
"I sit in a conspicuous place," Thomas acknowledged. "People who come to see the White House from all over the world listen to my pleas. They can listen if they want, or they can walk away. I am using everything I have—my hands, my mind and my voice—to protest nuclear weapons"