The regulation governing demonstrations on Capitol Square is “riddled with constitutional problems,” the ACLU of Virginia wrote today in a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The letter called upon the Governor to take swift action to revise the regulation.
“The Capitol Square is a quintessential public forum. The most effective location for protests against the government is often the seat of government itself,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “The vague and arbitrary restrictions on free speech in the Capitol Square undermine Virginians’ right to protest their government.”
The letter details numerous First Amendment violations in the regulation. Among other things, demonstrations are limited to a small section of the Capitol grounds, and officials are allowed to deny permits based on the content of speech and other unlawful considerations.
The letter was prompted by an announcement by the Family Foundation that the Richmond chapter of the National Day of Prayer had been denied a permit for a National Day of Prayer event, but the issue is not new. In 2012, thirty-one Capitol Square protesters were arrested because they did not stay within the designated protest area near the Bell Tower.
The permit application submitted by the Richmond chapter of the National Day of Prayer was denied because the organization’s event was to be held at noon, and the regulation provides that demonstrations during the noon hour should be “avoided.” In the letter to the Governor, the ACLU of Virginia called this provision “unacceptably vague” and “overbroad.”
The letter offered the ACLU of Virginia’s assistance in drafting new regulations that are compatible with the Constitution.