It struck many as odd last week, when the National Park Service elected to allow World War II veterans onto the World War II Memorial based on it being a “First Amendment” activity. The veterans weren’t really there to make a statement, after all, or say anything political. They had flown from a thousand or so miles away to visit a memorial to the war they fought, to see old friends, and remember those who fell in the war and have passed on since. None of that is expressly political or has much to do with the First Amendment. For most of those veterans and their families, the entire trip is quite personal. But by describing the visit as “First Amendment activity,” the NPS found a way to allow some veterans into the memorials and minimize some of the damage that blocking them was doing to the Democrats’ shutdown cause.
But today the National Park Service has announced that, despite the shutdown, it will allow a pro-immigration reform rally at the National Mall. That rally is being run by immigration activist groups and Big Labor — it’s a leftwing, pro-amnesty rally.
That rally, unlike the veterans visiting memorials, requires government manpower. Rallies of any real size require some permitting and security, among other things, even on open spaces such as the National Mall. Because about 30 members of Congress are expected to attend, most if not all of them Democrats, the NPS couldn’t very well block the activity. It would be blocking an important Democrat photo-op, and that just won’t do.
The NPS has dubbed the rally a “First Amendment activity,” and that’s why it is allowing it to proceed. They’re getting the logic of the Mall backwards here. The Mall does not exist primarily as a rally site, any more than the war memorials exist primarily as rally sites. We the people have the right to visit these unmanned, open air sites whether 17% of the government is shut down or not.
It’s fair to wonder whether the NPS proffered the odd justification of the veterans’ visit to the memorials on “First Amendment” grounds, so that it would have the same justification handy for the immigration reform rally. Otherwise, the optics of closing parks and fisheries down while allowing an obviously political rally to go ahead might have proven too much even for the snakes in the Beltway press corps to ignore.
This logic also stands behind the NPS’ other actions, in reverse — closing Florida fishing, closing privately-managed parks, closing off parking spaces at scenic overlooks, and so forth. The First Amendment simply states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It doesn’t say anything about visiting memorials or managing restaurants, or even staying in your own home, if they happen to be on federal land. The NPS decisions appear to violate the lease agreements that the service has with the private companies contracted to manage the parks and federal lands it is closing off. But Obama seems to believe that he personally owns all federal land and can use it to make any political point that he pleases.