The National Park Service is looking at potential regulations requiring payment from protestors in the nation's capitol, putting a question mark on the future of free speech and if it is indeed "free."
Richard Rosen, a law professor at Texas Tech, said there are two major question marks in this proposed regulation, pointing out they are tied together.
"The two largest concerns appear to be one, prohibiting demonstrations close to the gate, or the fence line of the White House, which apparently the Secret Service has requested, it is afraid of people breaching the fence line. The other, and probably most controversial, was the possibility of charging a fee to people who demonstrate," Rosen said.
He said Congress has authorized fees in the past, but the NPS has no history of requiring payments for demonstrations..
"I'm not sure that charging a fee in of itself would be unconstitutional. I think the problem becomes in deciding which protestors to charge fees to and which you don't, and certainly the regulation has to be written in such a manner that lists that criteria under which a fee may be waived and it certainly cannot discriminiate against on the basis of the content of the demonstrators' speech," Rosen said.
Rosen said the focus should be more on universities, where he said he believes it is a greater issue.
"The University of California wanted to charge controversial speakers based on the reaction of the crowd of the people who opposed the speaker and that is definitely, in my opinion, unconstitutional. I find that more troublesome than what the Park Service, at what this point, has simply proposed," Rosen said.
He said any problems keeping free speech "free" may start on college campuses.
"If there is anywhere where I think free speech is being jeopardized, it's been in the area where it should be most accepted, and that's at a college and university, where there should be an open and free discussion of all ideas," Rosen said.
The NPS reported it will always support the First Amendment right of free speech and assembly, but as Rosen said, the question is who will pay for these demonstrations: The taxpayers or the protestors?
"I have seen good arguments that the taxpayers should pay because that's an important ingredient of our political makeup in this country, the right to free speech. That's a question ultimately for Congress to determine, whether it funds the Park Service adequately to support free speech," Rosen said.
Each year, The NPS reported issuing about 750 permits for demonstrators, and about twice that for special events.
NPS will now review more than 36-thousand comments on the proposal and then determine whether to implement, modify, or withdraw the proposal.