It was April 2008, the eve of Thomas Jefferson’s 265th birthday, and Brooke Oberwetter wanted to celebrate with more than just cake. She wanted to honor the memory of the primary author of the Declaration of Independence with something special.
So she and 17 colleagues visited the Jefferson Memorial in near the Mall in Washington, D.C., donned head phones and Ipods and MP3 players and other music listening devices – and began to dance just shy of midnight, inside the memorial structure. “Silent expressive dancing,” she told the police who responded and asked her twice to stop.
She didn’t stop, though, and subsequently spent five hours in jail for resisting arrest. Three days later, U.S. Park Police officers went to her home and served her two citations, the first for “interfering with an agency function,” and the second for “demonstrating without a permit,” in violation of Park Service regulations. Oberwetter went to court to fight these charges, and won, after the judge ruled the arresting officer failed to properly prepare for the hearing. But the story hardly ends there. Oberwetter, in return, did what any good follower of Jeffersonian principles would do. She sued, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated.
“She sought injunctive and declaratory relief, saying that she ‘would again silently dance at the Jefferson Memorial to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, by herself and with other like-minded people, but refrains from doing so because she reasonably fears arrest, prosecution, fine and/or incarceration,” according to court documents.
A district court ruled Oberwetter had no real claim to make and dismissed her case. She appealed, and just a couple weeks ago, the Court of Appeals for the U.S. District of Columbia Circuit affirmed that decision. Memorials are places for somber reflection, the court said, not dance. If you want to dance, take it outside the memorial structure.
“Regulations specifically identify the interior of the Jefferson Memorial as a place where visitors may not engage in expressive activity that ‘has the effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers,’” according to the court ruling.
Oberwetter denied her actions drew a crowd, or were aimed at drawing a crowd, and compared her 18 strong dance troupe to tourists who gather at the memorial to snap pictures and talk. And she does have her band of supporters; several, in fact, have been dancing at the memorial, despite the court’s decision, gathering support via an advertisement, “Dance Party@TJ.”
The National Park Service puts it well, though, and says in a written statement that dancing is allowed in parks, at appropriate locations and times.
“But just as you may not appreciate someone using a cell phone is a movie theater or someone dancing in front of your view of a great work of art, we believe it is not appropriate to be dancing in an area that memorializes some of the most famous Americans,” the NPS states. “Visitors come from all over the globe to pay respect to, and read the words of Thomas Jefferson. These words, placed on the inner walls of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial chamber, are a moving testament of the good in humankind. We believe our visitors should be able to enjoy this experience without distractions.”
The NPS didn’t say it, but it should be added – “and without self-centered shows of juvenile behavior.”
Cheryl Chumley is online editor of Tea Party Review Magazine.