Youth poets from around the country pose for a group picture at Lafayette Park
A couple weeks ago I was contacted by my friend who owns a sound system that is frequently used for outdoor demonstrations, rallies, and press conferences. Since he has a couple of businesses that siphon much of his time, he normally contacts me about doing the sound for these events. Over the years I’ve helped a wide array of disparate groups amplify their voices and help facilitate their freedom of speech through my sound engineering skills.
Yesterday’s event was organized by a DC non-profit Sol y Soul in conjunction with Youth Speaks‘s 2008 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. Throughout last week over 450 different youths between the ages of 13 & 19 from around the world came to DC to compete, learn, and forge new friendships through spoken word poetry. This competition culminated into a final competition tonight in Lincoln Theater that will be recorded by HBO for a future episode of their Def Poetry series.
Friday afternoon’s event was called “Hear the Children Speak” and the theme of the poetry was about No Child Left Behind and America’s educational system. The permits allowed the organizers to construct a stage on the west side of Lafayette Park and have me setup a sound system that allowed each student the ability to recite their poetry on the microphone.
For the first two hours everything went superb, then a National Park Police Officer decided that their poetry, their 1st amendment, was too much and told one of the organizers we need to turn off the sound system.
I have done sound at Lafayette Park (also known as President’s Park, which is located just north of the White House) over a dozen times in the last few years and never before I have been told to turn off the sound system. I’ve been told to turn it down, but never off. After consulting with the organizers, I decided to contact the ACLU about what transpired and below is my initial e-mail which lays out exactly what happened:
Mr. Barnes [executive director of the ACLU National Capital Area],
I was given your contact information by our mutual friend and feel compelled to contact you about what I feel to be a First Amendment violation that took place today from 5-6pm in Lafayette Park on Friday, July 18th, 2008.
Sol y Soul, a non-profit based here in Washington, DC contacted me about doing sound engineering at their permitted 1st amendment rally today on the west side of Lafayette Park. The event featured high school students from nearly every state in the nation that came together to read their poetry about “No Child Left Behind.” HBO documentarians were present and filmed nearly the entire demonstration for a future episode of Def Poetry presents “Brave New Voices.”
We followed the permits to the T and had no issues for most of the demonstration, however at about 5pm National Park Police Officer Crawford told us that we were to turn off our amplified sound system even though our permit stated that we were allowed have poetry read until 6pm. We complied with the order and for the last hour the 100+ attendees were forced to crowd around the stage and forced to listen to the poetry recited without amplification in nearly 100 degree weather. This crowding of the stage posed a potential safety issue for all those in attendance and it unfairly prevented poets from being heard by their peers.
Over the last 4 years I have used this sound system, the same sound system we used today, over a dozen times at permitted demonstrations in Lafayette Park. However, I’ve never been told to turn off the sound system. I’ve been asked to turn down the sound system before, but never to turn it OFF. When I approached officer Crawford I politely asked why we were asked to have the sound system turned off. Her response made me quite livid– “You did not require the amplification for the number of people present.” I then stated that I could easily turn down the volume or turn off one of the amplified speakers (1/2 the permitted sound system) and she maintained her first response. Not once during the two hours prior had we been asked to turn down the volume– not once. After calling Amy Daley, our liaison at the National Park Service, she told us to return to officer Crawford and ask if there were complaints against our demonstration, which she felt might have been a different reason for the turn off request. Officer Crawford said that she did in fact receive complaints about some of the profanity used in some of the poetry.
After the demonstration was over I requested to speak with Officer Crawford’s commanding officer. About 15 minutes later, Officer Keenan arrived and he first cited in the permits a bogus line that says amplified sound systems are not allowed in the park. I corrected him and showed him that the line item he was using only dealt with sound systems south of Pennsylvania Ave, which prevents people from using megaphones too close to the White House. Then he followed up with DC municipal code which states that the use of curse words are illegal and people can be charged with Disorderly Conduct for saying the word “fuck”. Keenan also stated that he was the officer who told officer Crawford to “pull the plug.” After a few more minutes of futile, but polite discussion, we ended the conversation and were given two options- take the issue up with Officer Booker, who is the National Park Police liaison or take it up to the DC Superior Court on the grounds of the First Amendment. The third option, of course, was to contact you Mr. Barnes, because I strongly feel that our first amendment was violated today and you have been one of the strongest voices in the national capital area on first amendment issues.
The legal questions I have are as follows:
1) If the National Park Service is to issue permits for poetry readings in the future, should the poets be forced to censor themselves?
2) As the “sound guy,” should the officer first ask that the permitted sound system be turned down first, before asking to turn it completely off?
3) By forcing over a 100 youths to crowd around a small stage in 100 degree weather, were the National Park Police endangering the welfare of the participants?
4) Do you feel that we should pursue this further?
I look forward to hearing from you.
The e-mail has since been forwarded to the ACLU’s legal department and I’m awaiting more information. I will definitely post any updates here as they are received.
As someone who was assaulted the day before by youth who exemplify what happens when “children are left behind,” I felt that their poetry had a profound resonance within me. At times I cried hearing such moving words coming out of their mouths. But when they were silenced by what I feel to be illegal fiat, I took issue. I’ve blogged about the importance of getting permits when having a demonstration in the past, but if the permits are in order there should be no reason why anyone should be silenced. I sincerely hope the ACLU takes this case up because the power of the spoken word should never be silenced.
UPDATE: Since no one was arrested, it was suggested that there was little legal room to sue the National Park Police.
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