Lafayette Park Belongs to the Dissenters

Letter to Editor, published December 22, 1984
Washington Post "Free For All"

Elizabeth Rowe (Close to Home, Dec. 9) lamented that "Lafayette Square ... is no longer a place to delight the eye and invite the passerby" and that the park should be "restored to its traditional use as a 'public pleasuring place.'" She suggested establishing "the city's new Hyde Park on the Ellipse."

In a letter Dec. 15, Thomas W. D. Wright praised Elizabeth Rowe's inspiration and opined that "some [demonstrators] are aware they are defiling beauty."

It seems grossly unfair to credit Elizabeth Rowe with this "inspiration." In January 1983, the secretary of the Interior, James Watt, had the same notion. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon one's perception of "beauty"), he ran up against the First Amendment.

As early as July 1981 a tourist suggested that I move my signs ("trash" he called them) from in front of the White House to the Ellipse. I replied that if I moved, it would only be a matter of time before someone else's aesthetic sensibilities would be offended and would suggest I move to Greenbelt, Md. or Yosemite National Park, or the top of Mt. McKinley. And I pointed out that freedom of speech is something of a moot point if there is no one to hear what you are saying.

Perhaps Elizabeth Rowe has her traditions crossed, or maybe I just don't understand what she means by "a public pleasuring place." But one thing is certain--no place on the planet is a more traditional place for public discourse than Lafayette Park. And, traditionally, intolerant segments of the ponderous majority have sought to stifle minority dissent in front of the presidential palace.

Until recently those who considered the free expression of ideas less significant to the interests of democracy than the preservation of the status quo have been thwarted in their attempts to prohibit criticism in the area where it is most likely to reflect on the chief administrator. As recently as 1965, a bill was before Congress (it was voted down by the Senate) which was aimed at banning demonstrations within 1,000 feet of the White House. Now we have entered a new era where bureaucrats write regulations that restrict freedom of religion, speech, the press and the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievance.

In "Birth of a Street Person" (Style, Dec. 14), a story about my wife, Judith [sic] Thomas, and me, the U.S. attorney, Royce Lambeth. was quoted as asking, "Why can't (the demonstrators in front of the White House) conform!" Perhaps the answer lies in the question: "Why couldn't Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego kneel down and worship the king's idol!"

I have two additional solutions for folks who don't like to listen to folks they don't like to look at:
1) Build a chain-link fence around the District, call it "King's Dominion," and prohibit protesting within the fence.

2) Move to the Soviet Union and leave Lafayette Park to those who value individual freedom and human life above "perfect" Polaroid snapshots and the "sanctity" of national icons.

William Thomas