Inauguration Protesters Sue Over Security

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Lawyers for two groups that plan to protest at the inaugural parade Saturday filed suit this afternoon alleging that the security measures being implemented by law enforcement agencies will deny demonstrators their First Amendment rights.

Attorneys for the Justice Action Movement and the International Action Center asked U.S. District Court in D.C. for immediate relief from restrictions that they said will hinder their ability "to communicate with the president-elect."

There was no word on when the court might rule, but four years ago, an anti-abortion group won a last-minute court victory protecting its right to protest during President Clinton's second inaugural parade.

The lawsuit names as defendants the D.C. Police, the U.S. Secret Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. government. The suit makes four central charges.

It says the police checkpoints, which everyone attending the parade must pass through for the first time in history, are unconstitutionally vague because the police and Secret Service have not informed the protesters precisely what items will be banned. The lawyers claim officers at the checkpoints have too much discretion to keep protesters from entering.

The suit also alleges that the International Action Center is being denied full use of its permit to protest on Freedom Plaza, at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, because the Presidential Inaugural Committee has been allowed to erect bleachers over most of the space.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of several laws, including one that lawyers say forbids anyone to make a speech in a public space without permission of the chief of police.

Finally, the suit claims that protesters are being treated differently from Bush supporters, because inaugural planners are allowed to set up along the avenue in advance. Protesters may not arrive until 9 a.m. Saturday and cannot set up platforms or other props.

"The protesters don't ask for anything unreasonable," said Carl Messineo, an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice. "They don't ask to have a float put in the parade criticizing George Bush. They don't ask to displace exclusive [bleacher] seats. . . . All they want is to stand along Pennsylvania Avenue . . . to convey their political views to the president as he passes by."

Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who fielded questions from the public on today, said protesters would be allowed to do just that. "Our intent is not to stifle free speech," he said during that electronic forum. "Our concern is for public safety.

Later in the day, he said in an interview with The Post that he hadn't seen the lawsuit. But he said the department's goal is to see to it that people can protest "as long as it's peaceful and legal."

A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment on the lawsuit. But he said the rules being enforced at the checkpoints are clearly spelled out in regulations governing protests outside the White House. Those rules – prescribing the size of signs and forbidding certain protest props – will hold sway the length of the parade. He said bags may be searched for weapons, but there would be no metal detectors, and people would not be randomly asked to show identification.

Earle Kittleman, spokesman for the Park Service, said he could not comment directly on the suit, but he said the service had properly secured a permit for the inaugural planners to have bleachers on Freedom Plaza, and that protesters would also be allowed there. He said the service was trying to make sure both the protests and the parade are accommodated.

"I think all of us as Americans are in favor of First Amendment but we recognize it's a very delicate balance," he said. "You go too far on one side, then you can't have a presidential inaugural, so you have to be very very careful."