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New restrictions proposed for protests near the White House and National Mall

FILE - In this April 29, 2017, file photo, demonstrators sit on the ground along Pennsylvania Ave. in front of the White House in Washington. The National Park Service is exploring the question of whether it should recoup from protest organizers the cost of providing law enforcement and other support services for demonstrations held in the nation's capital. The proposed rule also could place new limits on spontaneous demonstrations and shrink a significant portion of the White House sidewalk accessible to the public. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Protests outside the White House are a common sight – but a much-debated new proposal could limit where those protests can take place.

Perhaps the most controversial part: the proposal also asks for feedback about whether organizers of those protests should be forced to pay fees.

Monday night marked the public’s last chance to weigh in on the proposal now being considered by the National Park Service.

A spokesperson for the National Park Service said the agency will then spend several months analyzing that public feedback. A final decision on the proposal is not expected until March of 2019.

Yet if it moves forward as currently written, civil rights groups say they are already planning to sue.

“If these rules were able to go into effect it would completely eviscerate free speech rights as we know them right now in the nation’s capital, ” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard.

She’s the executive director of the Partnership For Civil Justice Fund, which is a non-profit legal organizations that works to defend free speech.

“The proposal has many, many significant changes in it. It’s really a massive rollback of civil rights and free speech rights in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Among the proposed changes include a pay to protest plan. The National Park Service is floating the idea that when people access our public spaces that they will charge them for the right to do so if they’re engaging in free speech activities.”

According to the National Park Service, it’s been more than a decade since its regulations regarding demonstrations were updated. A spokesperson said the update is necessary to keep up with the changing dynamics of protests. They also hope the changes will make it easier for people to apply for a First Amendment demonstration or special event permit in the DC area by streamlining the regulations.

As for whether the agency is seriously considering charging fees to protest organizers, the National Park Service said that at this time, it’s simply looking for feedback from the public on whether it should look at ways to recover costs for ensuring public safety and security during increasingly frequent demonstrations in and around the National Mall.

As an example, a spokesperson said the Occupy DC demonstration which took place in 2012 cost the National Park Service $480,000 in law enforcement and other support personnel resources.

“While we always support the right to exercise First Amendment rights of speech and assembly, we want to know the public’s views on whether this is an appropriate expenditure of National Park Service funds, or whether we should also attempt to recover costs for supporting these kinds of events if the group seeking the permit for the event has the ability to cover those costs,” wrote Brent Everitt with the National Park Service.

Verheyden-Hilliard said her organization feels the possibility that protest groups could be forced to pay money is extremely concerning.

“If you think about the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, if these rules had been in place then, the government would have been able to assess massive costs on the organizers and stopped them from being able to have that important moment,” she said. “All you have to do is think about what our society would be like if that speech had been stifled.”

The proposal now being considered would also ban protesters from much of the sidewalk north of the White House, where temporary barriers are currently in place.

Everitt says that change was put into the proposal at the request of the secret service.

Verheyden-Hilliard said she feels that’s only partly true.

“This is definitely coming from the Trump administration,” she said. “This overhaul is so beyond any type of regulatory overhaul we could have imagined. Right now when you think about the rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, the extreme anti-protest language and hostility towards the First Amendment and to protesters, it’s not just rhetoric. It’s being matched with concrete action in these proposals to eliminate and crush free speech in the nation’s capital.”

That’s something civil rights groups intend to fight. As of Monday, more than 36,000 people had provided public comment online.

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