‘Star-Spangled Banner’-singing students muzzled at Jefferson Memorial

Wednesday, May 9, 2001
John F. Gwizdak

A National Park Service official stopped several Missouri students from singing about the “land of the free and the home of the brave” during a visit to the Jefferson Memorial last month.

A park ranger told the students to stop singing the national anthem on April 5 because, according to a federal regulation, if more than 26 people engage in activities that attract an audience, the event is considered a demonstration and requires a permit.

Participating in the singing were 20 of the 54 winners of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Voice of Democracy essay contest, ironically titled “What Price Freedom?” Each year the essay winners visit various national monuments, memorials and other historical sites.

The students’ outburst was a spontaneous occurrence, said Jerry Newberry, VFW communications and public affairs director. “It’s not like it was a big Mormon Tabernacle choir thing going on,” Newberry said.

VFW Commander-in-Chief John F. Gwizdak called the incident “outrageous” and demanded an apology. Gwizdak said any citizen should be permitted to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of Jefferson’s monument.

“Is the singing of our national anthem reserved only for the beginning of sporting events?” Gwizdak asked in an April 25 letter to National Park Service Deputy Director Dennis Galvin. “The students, who are among the best and brightest this nation has to offer, were understandably hurt, confused and disillusioned by the confrontational attitude of the park ranger. To deny them the opportunity to sing the national anthem is a denial of their First Amendment rights.”

Park Service official Robert Fudge apologized for the incident on a television news program in Washington, D.C., on May 3. The National Park Service has drafted an apology letter and will send it to the VFW after it is approved, Fudge said.

“No one should have interrupted the national anthem,” Fudge told freedomforum.org. “We like to emphasize that the people that work at the National Park Service are good American citizens that care deeply about democracy and stories about these great people. We regret that we have not provided this ranger with the training that would have assisted [her] in this situation.”

Fudge said the park ranger that stopped the singing was a new employee. “We’re taking complete responsibility for what this ranger did,” he said.

Certain monuments in Washington are considered “sacred areas” where disruptive activities are not allowed so “every American can experience the memorial” without distractions, said Fudge. But, Fudge said, park officials can’t dictate how a person chooses to experience the monument.

Fudge said the park rangers should enhance the experience of Jefferson Memorial visitors. “We don’t want them doing things that will leave a bad taste in [visitors'] mouths. The manner in which this was handled was inappropriate and not respectful of the visitors that were present.”

The Voice of Democracy program, which gives $139,000 in scholarships to high school students, is an audio essay contest designed to foster patriotism and give students a chance to voice their opinion and discuss their responsibility to their country.

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