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Sunday, February 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Dancing at Memorial Isn’t Free Speech, Judge Rules

(CN) - "Expressive dancing" at the Jefferson Memorial is not protected by the First Amendment, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled, dismissing a dancer's claim that she was wrongfully arrested for paying tribute to the founding father with her movements.

Mary Brook Oberwetter and 17 friends gathered at the Jefferson Memorial on April 12, 2008, the eve of Thomas Jefferson's birthday, and danced to music on their headphones.

National Park Service officer Kenneth Hilliard told the dancers to leave, but Oberwetter refused. Hilliard arrested her for demonstrating without a permit and for interfering with an agency function.

Oberwetter sued, claiming the Constitution allowed her to freely express herself through dance.

Unmoved, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled that Oberwetter's arrest was not a violation of her First Amendment rights. The interior of the open-air memorial is a nonpublic forum, he wrote, and the National Park Service bans all demonstrations at the memorial in order to maintain a quiet, tranquil environment.

Oberwetter had insisted that her silent dancing did not constitute demonstrating, but the judge disagreed.

Demonstrating consists of any "form of conduct which involve[s] the communication or expression of views or grievances ... the conduct of which has the effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers," Bates noted.

He said Oberwetter's admission that she was dancing to celebrate Jefferson's individual spirit was a clear expression of views, adding that passersby would likely "stop and observe a group of expressive dancers at a national memorial."

The fact that the park service allows an official commemorative ceremony on Jefferson's birthday doesn't give the public the right to demonstrate that day, Bates ruled.

He said the restrictions on demonstrations are consistent with the agency's goal of maintaining a calm, reverent atmosphere at national memorials.

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