Fund raising in parks takes a collection box, and a lawyer

 

When it comes to First Amendment rights, national parks operate a lot like airports. Park officials cannot discriminate against the speaker or the message, but they do have some discretion over how, where and when the delivery is made.

While most decisions are left up to the park superintendent, there are some agency-wide rules, such as the need to obtain permits for certain activities - especially for fund raising. But Jim Reilly, a visitor and education specialist at the Park Service's regional office in Denver, admits that rules are not always evenly applied. For example, Reilly doubts that A Christian Ministry gets a permit every time it solicits donations.

"We continue to be inconsistent," he says, "because each park doesn't know the intricacies of other cases."

Park officials insist they aren't singling out certain groups; even environmentalists are bucking up against constraints in national parks.

This past summer, staffers at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance sought permission from public-land managers across the state to lobby for a strong Utah wilderness bill. At recreation areas run by the Bureau of Land Management, it was simple, says SUWA activist Dave Pacheco. But when it came to setting up a table in the national parks, he says, he amassed a three-inch-thick file full of permits and memos.

At Canyonlands National Park, the official area for freedom of expression is next to the pit toilets, in the midst of the bike racks. Pacheco says the stench and a tangle of bikes drove them off. At Arches National Park, the space was better. But halfway through the summer, park officials revoked SUWA's permission to collect donations.

Jim Webster, chief ranger at Arches, says they were worried that SUWA's collection box would lead to commercialization.

SUWA wasn't about to give up the right to fund raise. From May through August, the group had collected $10,000 from Utah parks and BLM land "money used to keep up lobbying efforts. SUWA paid its table staffers $85 a week plus 20 percent of the donations.

After the Park removed the right to fund raise from SUWA's permit, the group's attorneys filed a temporary restraining order barring the permit change. SUWA argued that fund raising is inherent to the mission and message of some nonprofits. Before the judge ruled on the injunction, however, Park Service attorneys in Washington, D.C., advised Arches Superintendent Noel Poe that he wouldn't have much of a case. Collections resumed.

"We tend to discourage fund raising and we try to be even-handed," says Reilly. "That's not what parks are for."

Carl Christensen, a ranger in San Francisco, says that following an August court decision that stopped Hare Krishnas from selling beads and other trinkets in one national park, the agency issued a directive telling superintendents to interpret "printed-matter" strictly. That includes the hawking of T-shirts bearing slogans, he says.

Beyond the question of fund raising, there are also no hard and fast rules governing freedom of speech in national parks, says David Getches, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In one case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Park Service's decision to prohibit demonstrators from sleeping in cardboard shelters at Washington, D.C." s National Mall. The protesters argued that it was an expressive action, but the courts deferred to the park's need to enforce no-camping rules.

In a different case, the courts ruled against the Park Service for stopping a man from playing a loud instrument at Lafayette National Park, also in Washington, D.C. The judge argued that because of its urban setting, the park is a quintessential public forum. But the judge also argued that some remote parks are not public forums - their primary aim being solitude, not communication.

Says Getches: "What might be appropriate at a national battlefield might be totally inappropriate on top of a mountain peak."