A federal court in Washington on May 17, 2011 ruled that “silent expressive dancing” is prohibited inside the Jefferson Memorial in a decision that shows the limits of the Constitution. Mary Oberwetter likes Thomas Jefferson – alot. So much so, that she and 17 of her closest friends decided to honor his 256th birthday by dancing inside the Jefferson Memorial at midnight on the day of his birth. So they put on their individual earbuds and began to quietly sway in place, without uttering a peep. Park Officer Kenneth Hilliard asked them to stop dancing inside the Memorial. Mary, no doubt feeling the spirit of the author of the Declaration of Independence, asked why. Hilliard refused to answer and again told her stop. When she again asked for the legal reason he was stopping her, he pulled out her earbuds , grabbed her, cuffed her and arrested her for disobeying a lawful order. Later on the Parks Dept. added the charge of violating a Park regulation that prohibits demonstrations, picketing and speechmaking without a permit at the memorial. The rules also ban conduct that has the “propensity to draw onlookers.”
When Mary went to fight the case in US District Court, the judge there noted an error in the paperwork and told the Parks Dept they would have to re-file the charges properly; they decided to let it go. But not Mary. She hired a lawyer and sued the United States for violating her First Amendment right to speech and freedom of expression. She also wanted the court to declare that she had a right to dance next April 12 to honor her hero.
The appellate court a few days ago, however, upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the case finding that Ms. Oberwetter’s conduct is prohibited “because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration” the regulations are intended to preserve. “Outside the Jefferson Memorial, of course, Oberwetter and her friends have always been free to dance to their hearts’ content,” Judge Griffith said.
The case shows the limits of what many folks feel are the inalienable, limitless rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. “What about my rights!?” is an often repeated mantra in law firm conference rooms around the country. Before taking any action, it is wise to reseaarch whether there are limits to the conduct you intend to engage in, even though it appears perfectly legal on its face. I think most people would believe that dancing silently at the Jefferson Memorial was protected by the First Amendment.
While Mary might have preferred that the Parks Dept put up signs saying that no dancing is allowed (How about “This ain’t no disco!”) the court found that the Parks Dept regulations provided sufficient notice to citizens of the types of conduct prohibited at memorials. The regulations specifically state that no permits shall ever be issued for any form of demonstration, etc. to take place inside the memorial. That alone should have warned Mary that she was exposing herself to arrest, according to Judge Griffiths.
So do your homework before going out there and expressing yourselves, people. And be aware that there are limits to the freedoms expressed in the Constitution. As the court said in this case:
“The government is under no obligation to open [the Memorial] up as a stage for the roving dance troupes of the world -even those commemorating Jefferson.”