Park Service bans demonstrations at national cemeteries

The National Park Service (NPS) will continue banning picketers at national cemeteries for fallen soldiers, after a federal court ruled an earlier prohibition was too broad and could be interpreted in a way that violates the First Amendment, the agency said Tuesday.

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The Park Service announced it is narrowing the definitions of "demonstrations" and "special events" that are prohibited at national cemeteries to comply with the court ruling. But it will not reverse the prohibition altogether at the 14 national cemeteries it manages.

"The national cemeteries administered by the NPS have been set aside as resting places for members of the fighting forces of the United States," NPS wrote. "Many activities and events that may be appropriate in other park areas are inappropriate in a national cemetery."

The NPS said such banned activities include pickets, speeches, marches, vigils or religious services, sports events, historical reenactments, beauty pageants, celebrations, parades, fairs, and festivals, among other things, that are "reasonably likely to attract a crowd or onlookers."

When NPS proposed the rule last August, one commenter suggested that the agency should allow peaceful demonstrations, but the agency said Tuesday it disagrees.

"The NPS’s national cemeteries were established as national shrines in tribute to the gallant dead of our Armed Forces," the agency wrote.

"These national cemeteries are intended to have a protected atmosphere of peace, calm, tranquility, and reverence, where individuals should be able to quietly contemplate and reflect," it added.

The NPS said the rules are intended to allow family members to mourn their loved ones, but one commenter suggested that a crying mother could be kicked out of the cemetery by a park ranger who believes she is demonstrating.

However, NPS disputed that notion.

"An expression of grief that is uttered by a mother at her son’s grave-side would not fall within the definition of a demonstration, especially since the national cemeteries are 'where individuals can quietly visit, contemplate, and reflect upon the significance' of the interned," NPS wrote.

The changes come after a federal court ruled that the agency's previous rules were too broad and may restrict people's free speech.

In Boardley v. Department of the Interior, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Park Service could not prevent Michael Boardley from passing out Gospel tracts at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

The court ruled that "the regulations in their current form are antithetical to the core First Amendment principle that restrictions on free speech in a public forum may be valid only if narrowly tailored. Because these regulations penalize a substantial amount of speech that does not impinge on the government's interests, we find them overbroad and therefore reverse the district court."