It was a springtime lark. April 2008, midnight. A group of about 20 young people descended upon the Jefferson Memorial and began quietly dancing to music -- music only they could hear with their earphones.
It was a flash dance and hardly anyone else was around, except the police.
U.S. Park Rangers and Police on duty were not amused or entertained. They started shooing the dancers away, telling them to disperse. An event organizer can be heard on amateur video trying to explain the dancers were celebrating Thomas Jefferson, the author of the nation’s Declaration of Independence. You know, freedom and all that.
The dance was supposed to last only 10 minutes, but it didn’t, and when it was over, one person had been arrested on misdemeanor charges of failing to follow police orders and interfering with operation of the memorial.
That one person, Mary Oberwetter, was served with papers. She went to court to fight the charge.
In papers filed by Alexandria attorney Alan Gura, she argued that the low-key dancing was protected free speech, surely allowed at the feet of Thomas Jefferson, of all places.
The suit also noted that routine groups of noisy school kids disrupt the quiet mood of the Jefferson far more than silent dancing.
The courts didn’t buy it.
They agreed with the U.S. Park Service that it has a duty to maintain “decorum” at the nation’s monuments and that any demonstrations, whether one person or many, are not allowed inside the nation’s memorials.
This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia firmly agreed.
It said that “expressive dancing falls within the spectrum of prohibited activities” and that “the Park Service has a substantial interest in promoting a tranquil environment at our national memorials.”
We’re not sure. The attorneys in the case and Oberwetter could not be reached for comment on whether they intend to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.