Philanthropy’s Multiple Tools: Victory for Protest Rights in Our Nation’s Capital

By Melissa Spatz, Director, Piper Fund, and Paul Di Donato, President and CEO, Proteus Fund

In a critical victory for basic democratic norms, the National Park Service announced on October 28th that it is withdrawing its proposal to change regulations governing protest in Washington DC. The proposed regulations would have drastically curtailed protest rights in the nation’s capital by charging exorbitant fees for protests, closing off the sidewalk in front of the White House (a site of iconic protests throughout our country’s history), and slowing down the process for obtaining a permit.

In withdrawing the proposal, the National Park Service acknowledged it was largely due to public outcry, pointing to the 140,000 comments it received opposed to the new regulations. A spokesman for the National Park Service noted that there was “a good amount of feedback from a lot of folks, not only D.C. residents, but also stakeholders—those who have been issued permits for events on the National Mall—which certainly played a major factor in the decision to withdraw the proposal.”

When the initial restrictions to protest were announced, the Proteus Fund took immediate action as our democracy program has been a pillar of Proteus’ work for our entire history.

Piper Fund, our donor collaborative focused on protecting and further expanding a healthy democracy, provided a rapid response grant that enabled the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) to lead an extensive public engagement campaign to encourage the submission of comments in opposition to the regulations. It was through PCJF’s excellent leadership and the work of dozens of allied organizations, that over so many comments were submitted.

Piper Fund followed with a grant this spring to support litigation, ensuring that PCJF would be able to take immediate action in the event that the regulations advanced. The Protect Dissent Network, a national coalition led by Piper Fund and Piper Action Fund, also sprung into action during the public comment period, with members contributing substantive comments in opposition to the proposed regulations.

Finally, Proteus Fund determined that even greater philanthropic leadership on this issue was critical. As a result, we developed a sign-on letter to express opposition from the philanthropic sector. We were able to mobilize 140 funders to sign onto the Proteus letter which noted:

“Peaceful protest is a hallmark of our democracy and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution—that no matter our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status or political affiliation, all in America have the right to give public voice to our concerns, to weigh in on our government’s actions, and to support the ideals that are close to our hearts. To restrict or burden the public’s First Amendment right to protest in the nation’s capital is to directly undermine a core democratic and essential Constitutional value and a critical vehicle for public participation in our democracy.”

This partnership between funders and advocates was what made the difference, by encouraging large scale engagement of impacted communities to insist upon their Constitutional right being protected. We thank all of our donor partners who played a role in this extraordinary collaborative effort to successfully protect this fundamental Constitutional right at a moment when our democracy is facing such existential threats.

It is important to note that this campaign was part of a sustained effort at Piper Fund, which established a program dedicated to protecting the right to protest in 2017 in the wake of dozens of state laws seeking to criminalize protest. In addition to Piper’s support of organizations in Washington DC, Piper has provided rapid response grants to 16 states and funded at the national level to build needed infrastructure to fight these attacks against democracy. Because of the amazing growth in the need for this funding and related work, we have hired a full-time program officer dedicated solely to supporting efforts to defend the right to protest.