Late at night on the eve of April 12, 2009, 18 people were ordered to leave the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. on account of disrespecting the monument by silently dancing in celebration of Jefferson’s birthday. After protesting Parks Services’ request to leave numerous times, one dancer, Mary Oberwetter, was arrested. Although her charges were later dropped, Oberwetter sued Parks Services, citing that her right to freedom of expression was violated. Just last week, U.S. District Judge John Bates dropped her case and ruled that the inside of a memorial is not a place to dance, even if silent.
When I first read this news, I envisioned Oberwetter as Kevin Bacon in Footloose. However, after re-reading several articles about the incident, I do think Oberwetter’s arrest might have been more a result of her hostile refusal to leave, rather than her silent dancing. Was Oberwetter defacing a national memorial, or was her right to free-expression breached?
Jeffersonian ideals aside, odd stories like this make me question my own views of site-specific and public performance. Should artists have to ask permission (whose permission?) to express themselves in a public setting? Some places require dancers to obtain a permit to perform in a public setting, understandably to ensure the safety of the performers or bystanders. But if one site is ruled to be unfit for dance, will there be more places where dance is outlawed—similar to that fictional town of Beaumont?
In response to this bizarre news story, TweenTribune, an educational news website geared towards students ages 8–14, posted a brief article and asked students to post comments and opinions. From over eight pages of short, yet insightful reactions, here are my favorites:
“It is important to express your feelings, however dancing in the Jefferson Memorial is dangerous. If you start dancing and lose control, you could bump into something priceless and valuable to the country.
The park officer was correct, but he could have suggested a different way to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. For example, the park officer could have suggested a classical music concert to be played outside the Jefferson Memorial.” –Submitted by Dmitri
“I think those people should be able to dance freely wherever they please. It’s their first amendment right! I understand why the officials were upset, though. It’s kind of like not standing quietly during the playing of the national anthem. It’s not ILLEGAL, it’s just disrespectful. You can’t get arrested for that! There’s no law concerning manners.” –Submitted by Cassidy12
“Why were they dancing there anyway? It wasn’t like they were annoying anyone, or showing disrespect. I also think it was over-the-top to arrest her for dancing. But I’m really just wondering, why were they dancing by the Jefferson Memorial?” –Submitted by LisC