Gay March Organizers Required to Pay in Advance for Grass Repairs
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government is requiring organizers of a major gay rights march on the National Mall to pledge money in advance for repairing the grass - the first time such a condition has been imposed on demonstrators.
Anonymous donors have agreed to sign a $300,000 letter of credit that would be used to resod the Mall if it is damaged in the April 25 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
Organizers, who predict the demonstration may draw up to 1 million people, are complying reluctantly.
″I will state very emphatically that it was not our idea ... to pay to exercise free speech,″ said Billy Hileman, one of the event’s co-chairs.
Sandra Alley, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which maintains the Mall, said organizers of festivals and commercial events there are regularly required to put up cash guarantees.
But she said this is the first time a group will put up money before it can exercise free speech on the popular strip of public land that runs from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.
The requirement was imposed for practical reasons, according to Alley. The Mall was recently reseeded and has been closed off.
″Your ability to express your First Amendment rights is not based upon your ability to pay,″ Alley said.
President Clinton’s inaugural committee had paid for the Mall to be reseeded with private donations after it was damaged by inauguration festivities in January. The Park Service announced the Mall would be closed until June 1. In February, the service refused to give the gay march organizers a permit for the Mall.
The Park Service did give them permits for activity on other pieces of public lands, including the Ellipse behind the White House and the Washington Monument grounds.
But Gregory Adams, a spokesman for the march’s organizing committee, said the group wanted access to the entire Mall because of its symbolism and because so many demonstrators are expected.
″Those grounds have become linked with practically every civil rights demonstration that’s ever occurred,″ he said.
The solution was brokered by Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., who is openly gay. At the request of march organizers, Studds arranged several meetings with officials at the Department of the Interior, which includes the Park Service. He also spoke with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
″Our first reaction was ‘Grass? You’re going to do this for grass?‴ said Mark Agrast, Studds’ senior legislative assistant. ″You’ve got a million people coming in.
″But the more we looked at it, the more we thought this was an extraordinary situation where you’ve got two rights.″
Agrast said the Park Service argued that grass has a very short growing season in Washington and that it would be useless to reseed the Mall after the gay rights march. The only solution would be to put down sod, the Park Service said, but the American taxpayers shouldn’t pay for that.
″We consulted with agronomists and experts in lawn restoration at RFK Stadium,″ Agrast said. ″And the more we looked at into it, the more it looked like the Park Service was right.″
Agrast and Hileman said their offices were inundated with calls from people who offered not only to pay to resod the Mall but to perform the actual labor.
As for the $300,000 letter of credit, Agrast said it is ″highly likely″ the money will have to be spent, given the large number of people expected.
But both he and Hileman said they hope this would not set a precedent for other First Amendment demonstrations on the Mall.
″We made it very clear to Congressman Studds’ office as well as the Park Service that we did not view this as payment for the area but just a guarantee that if we did any damage that was unreasonable, that we would pay for it,″ Hileman said.