August 31, 2020
Charis Wilson, FOIA Officer
National Park Service
P.O. Box 25287
12795 W. Alameda Parkway
Denver, CO 80225
Subject: Freedom of Information Act Request
Dear Ms. Wilson:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Improvement Act of 2016 (Public Law No. 114-185) submitted on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. This request relates to the closure of Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine (FOMC) on Tuesday, August 25 from 1pm until 11:59 pm, and on Wednesday, August 26 to allow for the preparation and use of the park for Vice President Mike Pence’s Republican nomination acceptance speech.
According to an Action Alert posted on the FOMC website on August 24 (see https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/news/park-closure-august-2020.htm):
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine will be closed on Tuesday, August 25 from 1pm until 11:59 pm, and on Wednesday, August 26. The closure includes the entirety of the park located at 2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230, including Nimitz Street and parts of Wallace Street immediately adjacent north and west of Fort McHenry (in total forty-two acres) stretching from the Patapsco River on the east to Nicholson Street on the west and stretching from the Baltimore Harbor on the north to the Patapsco River on the south. (emphasis added)
BACKGROUND FOR THIS REQUEST
On August 17, 2020, we wrote to Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director, calling her attention to NPS regulations at 36 CFR § 2.51 regarding “Demonstrations and Available Park Areas.” As stated in § 2.51(a-c):
- “The term ‘demonstrations’ includes… speechmaking… and all other like forms of conduct that involve the communication or expression of views or grievances, engaged in by one or more persons, the conduct of which is reasonably likely to attract a crowd or onlookers.” 2.51(a)
- “Demonstrations are allowed within park areas designated as available under paragraph (c)(2)of this section, when the superintendent has issued a permit for the activity” (unless the activity involves groups of 25 or less). 2.51(b)
- The NPS may limit such demonstrations, including speechmaking, to designated areas provided certain conditions are met; and “the superintendent must designate on a map…the locations designated as available for demonstrations.” 2.51(c)(1-2)
In addition to the permit and location requirements established under 36 CFR§ 2.51, NPS management of First Amendment activities should also comply with NPS Management Policies 2006 Section 8.6.3, which states, in part:
- The National Park Service will authorize the use of park land for public assemblies… and other public expressions of views protected under the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, in accordance with 36 CFR 2.51or 36 CFR 7.96…[T]he Service may manage these activities by issuing a permit to regulate the time, location, number of participants, use of the facilities, and number and type of equipment used, but not the content of the message presented.
- For all parks [outside of] portions of the National Capital Region, locations… available for public assemblies and other First Amendment activities… will be so designated by the superintendent on a map in accordance with procedures and criteria found in NPS regulations. (emphasis added)
- When the Service allows one group to use an area or facility for expressing views, it must provide other groups with a similar opportunity, if requested. No group wishing to assemble lawfully may be discriminated against or denied the right of assembly provided that all permit conditions are met.
- NPS staff on duty in an area in which a First Amendment activity is being conducted will be neutral toward the activity, but will remain responsible for the protection of participants, spectators, private property, public property, and park resources.
- When a permit is requested for the exercise of First Amendment rights… the superintendent will issue the permit without any requirement for fees, cost recovery, bonding, or insurance.
With regard to Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Site, the Superintendent’s Compendium, under 36 CFR §2.51 (c)(2), designates the following locations as available for “demonstrations” (i.e., First Amendment activities such as the political speeches):
- The area of West Lawn, as indicated on the attached map. This area is in prominent view of the visiting public and will not interfere with public access to the park.
- The area of the East Lawn adjacent to the Star Fort Trail, as indicated on the attached map. This area is in prominent view of the visiting public and will not interfere with public access to the park.
On August 24, 2020, we wrote again to Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director, expressing concern about the event being held outside the park’s designated First Amendment areas. We also expressed concern about a masonry walkway inside the Fort being damaged by equipment used to build the stage and install the lighting for the Vice President’s speech. In that letter we urged the National Park Service “to investigate this damage and up-date current policies and procedures as recommended in our previous letter so that natural and historic resources are not compromised during future permitted events.”
As described above, there are a number of NPS requirements associated with allowing campaign speeches within a unit of the National Park System under the guise of a First Amendment activity. It is highly inappropriate for NPS to grant a §2.51 permit to hold a campaign event or other First Amendment activity at any location other than those currently designated as available for demonstrations. If not properly permitted and managed by NPS in accordance with these requirements, allowing such use in conflict with established regulations and could create the perception that the current Administration is abusing it authority over units of the National Park System for political self-promotion during a heated national election.
In brief, it appears that National Park Service has bent, if not broken, its own regulations in order to accommodate a purely partisan political speech by the Vice President at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. The public has a right to know, in a timely manner, under what justification and in what manner the NPS has authorized this use.
We are willing to pay up to $250.00 in processing fees, if necessary.
DESCRIPTION OF DOCUMENTS REQUESTED
We request the following documents under the Freedom of Information Act:
- A copy of the NPS permit, and attachments thereto, issued for closing the park on Tuesday, August 25 from 1pm until 11:59 pm, and on Wednesday, August 26 to allow the “entirety of the park” to be prepared for and used for Vice President Pence’s Republican nomination acceptance speech.
- A copy of any written communications sent by DOI or NPS officials in Washington, DC to the NPS Regional Director or the FOMC superintendent or acting superintendent, if applicable, suggesting, advising, or directing the regional office or the park to accommodate the Vice President’s speech or instructing them on specific Terms and Conditions of the permit issued for the event. This request includes emails sent from/to government or personal computers and texts sent from/to government or personal cell phones for the purposes described above.
- A copy of the case incident report, including any photographs and repair cost estimates if available, documenting damages to the site caused by site preparation for the event or by the event itself.
REQUEST A FEE WAIVER
To determine my status with regard to fees, you should know that I am the Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. The Coalition is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to study, educate, speak, and act for the preservation and protection of the National Park System and mission-related programs of the National Park Service.
Disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the manner in which the National Park Service administers partisan political campaign events conducted at units of the National Park System. I have no commercial interest in this request. Having such information will enable the Coalition to more effectively communicate and advocate for the protection of park resources and the public’s opportunities to use and enjoy our national parks without unreasonable disruption from park closures due to partisan political activities.
Given the scope and nature of this request, we would appreciate a timely response. Thank you for your consideration.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
cc: Margaret Everson, Counselor to the Secretary Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director
Shawn Benge, Acting Deputy Director for Operations, National Park Service
Gay Vietzke, Region 1 Regional Director, National Park Service
Shaun Eyring, Acting Superintendent, FOMC, National Park Service
Abbi Wicklein-Bayne, FOMC Contact for the event, National Park Service