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Thomas Jefferson And The Cha Cha Slide

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
June 4, 2011

There’s a meet-up planned at the Jefferson Memorial today. People are invited to bring their own music, listen to it on earbuds, and dance.

I’m not sure the meet-up began as a protest. It’s become one now.

In May, an appeals court ruled that the U-S Park Police were right to arrest a woman named Mary Brooke Oberwetter for going to the Jefferson Memorial with a group of friends shortly before midnight on April 12, 2008, and silently dancing to salute Thomas Jefferson’s 265th birthday.

The court said that the dancing “distracted from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration” Park Service regulations uphold for all visitors.

Ms. Oberwetter, who has described herself as a libertarian, said dancing is free expression, and that schoolchildren on a field trip create more noise and distraction. So a few more people went to the Jefferson Memorial to dance last Saturday. Five were arrested.

It is painful to watch the video taken by one of the dancers. They do not cease and desist when the police order them to stop dancing. The officers subdue them by squishing them on hard marble floors to clap them into handcuffs.

I guess the appeals court was saying that free speech doesn’t give people the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, or do the Macarena inside a solemn memorial. I have certainly seen Park Police—often quite courageously—uphold the rights of everyone from nuns to Nazis to express themselves however they want on the National Mall.

But I find these memorial meet-ups put the parent in me at odds with my persevering inner child.

The parent wants to tell kids, “If you make a scene in a national memorial, make it about war, poverty, or equality—something. Don’t make a federal case out of something as trifling as doing the Cha Cha Slide under Thomas Jefferson’s nose.”

But the kid still thrills to hear Kevin Bacon tell parents in the small-town that’s banned dancing in the 1984 film, Footlose, “It’s our time to dance. It’s our way to celebrate life.”

The whole point of free speech is that government shouldn’t decide what is worthy of it.

I called John Lithgow, the thoughtful actor who played the conflicted minister in Footloose who believes dancing is wicked.

“I’m not a lawyer or a clergyman,” John reminded me, “though I’ve played them many times.

“These folks are creating a flash mob,” he said. “An almost meditative moment passing as a great party. It may be a spectacle, but that’s an act of creation. Tell them it’s illegal, and it makes it even more appealing to them. As long as they are aware of the consequences, and accept them, who am I to judge?” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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