Court Approves Limits on Protests for Trump's Inauguration

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 17, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Freedom Plaza rises grandly above the parade that courses through Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, a tradition that marks the election of a new president ever since George Washington took office in 1789.

Thousands of spectators line up along Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Capitol to the White House to see the next President of the United States. They crowd together on the sidewalks, parks, and plazas. On Freedom Plaza, parade organizers, media representatives, and other ticket holders take their seats on bleachers set up by the parade committee for the historic event.

But a protest group sued over the exclusive seating, saying the bleachers restricted their freedom of speech. They contended that the prime spot unconstitutionally favored the government's message to its own.

Constitutional Bleachers

Three days before the next inauguration, a federal appeals court denied their petition. The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia said that the placement of the bleachers is content-neutral and that the restriction on the plaza's use is narrowly tailored to fit the government's interest in conducting a parade.

"This case presents a controversy that is likely to arise every four years," the appeals panel said, noting that the protest group first complained in 2005 and has demonstrated at both Republican and Democrat inaugurations since then. While the judges turned back their challenge to displace the parade committee's seating, they also acknowledged their right to protest.

"One of the great accomplishments of our Constitution is its guarantee of the people's right to take to the streets to say what they think," Judge Nina Pillard wrote for the unanimous court.

More Spots Available

In applying for a permit in 2013, the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition sought space for a multimedia demonstration, with "signs, placards, banners, stage, sound, bleachers, art installation, props, canopies, and other facilitative materials." The National Park Service, which regulates use of the area, informed ANSWER that it would be permitted to use a 160-foot long by 35-foot wide portion of Freedom Plaza for its Inauguration Day demonstration.

The park service allocated 70 percent of the public space for the public, 17 percent for the media and 13 percent for committee -- including the bleachers. In considering the demonstrators' challenge to the allocation, the court said it was content-neutral because any ticket holder -- including an ANSWER sympathizer -- could take a seat on the committee bleachers.

"The regulation itself is agnostic as to whether the persons to be seated will even be supporters of, or chosen by, the incoming president, let alone whether they will express themselves in any particular way," the court said. "Consistent with the rule, President Obama's 2009 Inaugural Committee, for example, offered some of its bleacher seats at a nominal price to any member of the public."

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