Free Speech ‘Zone’ in National Parks?

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Canadian blogger Andrew Lawton of the Landmark Report made an interesting discovery as he visited his neighbors to the south. The Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee has apparently set up a “Free Speech Expression Area”.

That sounds nice, doesn’t it? A place in the park where you can be free to say what you want and think how want. Wait…what happens when you leave the designated “free speech zone”? Lawton writes: “Through this signage, the NPS is not reminding people of the first amendment’s existence; rather, it’s informing the public that the first amendment applies only in specifically sanctioned areas of the country’s national parks.”

Sanctioned areas? Maybe I’m just not up to speed on my first Amendment rights. I had always assumed that first Amendment was something every American carries with them wherever they go in this country. Let’s revisit the Constitution for one second.

”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Hmmmm…nothing about free speech being limited to designated areas. Actually, upon rereading that it sounds like a “free speech zone” would be in direct violation of the Amendment. Sounds to me like the National Park Service is breaking the law.

The NPS sees it differently, however. Their website claims: “By law, the National Park Service has established places in parks where First Amendment activities can be accommodated. These areas are visible to the general visiting public without interfering with the public’s enjoyment of the park. While the National Park Service regulates aspects of the activity to protect park resources, it never regulates the content of the message.” 

Now I’m really confused. Exactly which law supercedes the CONSTITUTION? It gets worse. Lawton did a little more digging and discovered that the NPS has decided that some activities do not  fall under the First Amendment. From the website:

Type of Activities that are NOT covered by the First Amendment

  • Church picnic or social gathering
  • Wedding ceremonies or receptions
  • Political fund raiser or other invitation-only political activity or event
  • Solicitation of donations
  • Community parades, athletics, or sporting events
  • Sale of message-bearing clothing, arts and crafts, or similar merchandise

I suppose it’s not unreasonable for the NPS to want to prevent folks from earning money at the park (I guess, but come on…really?), but the idea that they seem to have decided what the first amendment covers and what it doesn’t sounds downright tyrannical. That’s a job for SCOTUS. It’s one thing to advise visitors that the park does not approve of for-profit activities on public soil, it’s quite another to decide all on your own how and where the first amendment applies.

Lawton believes the policy has “staggeringly dangerous ramifications. It perpetuates the big government myth that rights–in this case freedom of speech and expression–are granted by government. Sure, you can express yourself, but only in one of the NPS’s designated free speech zones.”

Because, you know – those little old church ladies and Christian youth groups are getting way out of hand! If the NPS allows them to hold gatherings freely in any national park the entire foundation of civilized society may start to crumble.

Or not. But hey, what did the Founding Fathers know? If there had been a National Park Service at the founding of our country they would have surely added the “free speech zone” idea to the first amendment.

*See more of Lawton’s story and other commentary at the Landmark Report – Canada’s premier website for conservative thought and values.

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