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No dancing at Jefferson Memorial, judge rules

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit that alleged the National Park Service violated the rights of a District woman who was arrested in 2008 for dancing with 17 others at the Jefferson Memorial.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled in a 26-page opinion on Monday that the interior of the memorial is not a public forum where people may dance, even if they are silently boogying to music on headphones.

“The purpose of the memorial is to publicize Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, so that critics and supporters alike may contemplate his place in history,” Bates wrote. “The Park Service prohibits all demonstrations in the interior of the memorial, in order to maintain ‘an atmosphere of calm, tranquillity, and reverence.'”

“Prohibiting demonstrations is a reasonable means of ensuring a tranquil and contemplative mood at the Jefferson Memorial,” the judge added.

The suit stems from a dance by Mary B. Oberwetter and her friends inside the memorial at 11:55 p.m. on April 12, 2008, the eve of Jefferson’s birthday.

Oberwetter and the others were listening to music on headphones and engaging in expressive dancing to honor “the individualist spirit for which Jefferson is known,” Oberwetter’s attorney, Alan Gura, wrote in court papers.

That’s when U.S. Park Police Officer Kenneth Hilliard showed up and told them to stop. When Oberwetter refused and asked why he was demanding they stop their jigs, Hilliard arrested and charged Oberwetter with demonstrating without a permit and interfering with an agency function. The charges were eventually dropped.

Oberwetter then sued the Park Service in March 2009, alleging that it violated her rights to free expression and asked Bates to block the government from taking such steps in the future. She also sought monetary damages against Hilliard and the Park Service for violating her rights. The Justice Department argued for the Park Service that the government had the right to regulate activities inside the memorial because it is seeking to maintain a quiet atmosphere.

“The Memorial is, has long been, and is intended to be a place of calm, tranquillity, and reverence—a place where visitors can go to celebrate and honor Jefferson and enjoy and contemplate the Memorial itself without the distraction of public demonstrations and other expressive activities,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in court papers. “The Memorial is akin to a temple or a shrine (both in terms of its purpose and its physical characteristics), not a place of public expression.”

Read the Opinion jeffersondecision.pdf.

No word yet from Gura on whether he plans to appeal.

-- Del Quentin Wilber

By Del Wilber  |  January 26, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Del Quentin Wilber , From the Courthouse , The District  
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TJ would not like this ruling.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 26, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like a fair ruling to me. Why wouldn't Jefferson like this ruling jckdoors?

Posted by: dcdoug | January 26, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Nice to see the public have an interest in one of our founding fathers. Where would we be without them?

Posted by: uncivil | January 26, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

That judge is wrong. This is a free country or should I say it was before Bush and Obabma became boss.
They should tell Judge John D. Bates to take his ruling and shove it up his Azz.
This country is slowly turning into another IRAQ. No freedom of speech or expression.

Posted by: Fathertimema | January 26, 2010 7:21 PM | Report abuse

another example of saying something just to say something. sometimes u can let things go. those people had on headphones. police officers today seem to try make everything a crime, always trying to intimidate the average citizen, those who would otherwise never run afoul of the law. its getting ridiculous. pick ur battles, everything is not a war.

Posted by: icebluekoolaid1 | January 26, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

The point is, they were told to stop and they refused. Inside the memorial is not appropriate for public displays of expression. If they just wanted to dance in celebration, they could have done that right outside the memorial without any issues more than likely. People need to listen and respect the police. When told to do something, they need to comply. if you have a problem with what you were told to do, then take that up at a later time. They should have considered themselves lucky to have the charges dropped, but no this young lady wanted monetary damages. That is what she was really always after more than likely...

Posted by: pennv | January 27, 2010 7:07 AM | Report abuse

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