WASHINGTON -- At a House hearing Wednesday over the shutdown's closure of the National World War II Memorial, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) questioned why the National Park Service treated the push to reopen the memorial any differently than the earlier Occupy D.C. movement.
"Do you consider a First Amendment activity to walk to a monument that you helped build, or is it only just smoking pot at McPherson Square?" Gowdy asked.
Protesters from the Occupy D.C. movement occupied MacPherson Square for four months from 2011 to 2012 before the National Park Service, which also operates the World War II Memorial, eventually removed them. The memorial has been closed since Oct. 1, when barricades were erected after the federal government -- and agencies such as the Park Service -- were forced to shut down. During the last government shutdown in 1995, the Park Service also acted according to regulations and closed a number of memorials.
One day after the 2013 shutdown began, the National Park Service announced an accommodation allowing veterans to visit the memorial. Nevertheless, Republican politicians -- many of whom cheered a government shutdown to defund Obamacare -- decried the "barrycades" and blamed President Barack Obama. Their outrage led Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to hold the House Committee On Oversight and Government Reform hearing Wednesday.
Gowdy asked why the Park Service did not immediately evict Occupy protesters, but quickly put up barricades at the World War II Memorial.
"The First Amendment activities are content neutral on the First Amendment and on the National Mall," replied National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, affirming that a First Amendment protest on the Mall is protected regardless of content.
"That wasn't my question," Gowdy continued. "Do you consider it to be an exercise of your First Amendment right to walk to a monument that you helped build?"
Jarvis began to respond, "If an individual declares they are there to exercise their First Amendment rights --"
But Gowdy interrupted, "Who were they to declare it to, the barricades?"
Jarvis then answered more fully. "On the National Mall, any group under 25 does not need a permit to exercise their First Amendment," he said, "and we set up the policy to allow our veterans in, including all of the Honor Flights, under First Amendment. So they were not not denied access."
The Occupy D.C. movement also involved similar thorny questions of the First Amendment. Many argued the camping was a protest protected by those rights, but the National Park Service ultimately enforced no-camping rules and cleared the park over health and safety concerns.