Three decades ago, on May 14, 1990, I was fortunate to witness an oral argument at the Supreme Court of the United States. The oral argument concerned whether the First Amendment permitted prosecution for flag burning in violation of the Flag Protection Act of 1989. A few weeks later, the Supreme Court handed down its verdict, as I stood and watched a peaceful demonstration on the steps of the Supreme Court. The Court’s determination was that the prosecutions under the Flag Protection Act were not supportable under the First Amendment.
Since that moment, I have profoundly appreciated Constitutional protections, and the seriousness given to any effort by the government to limit them. The ability to freely express our views is fundamental in our society. Even when society might find some ideas offensive or disagreeable. Just as our Constitution protects such forms of speech, it guards our right to peaceably assemble.
After the Nation witnessed the horrific killing of George Floyd, seeing with their own eyes a loss of life that should never have occurred, many reacted. In doing so, many seek to exercise their rights peacefully; some have not, turning instead to unlawful activity. The scope of the violence and destruction is significant. Neither the American people nor the peaceful demonstrators are defined by those who seek to terrorize our cities, vandalize our national memorials, ignite our sacred sites, or attack our law enforcement officers and fellow citizens. But, the presence of these criminals and their acts of violence last weekend and into this week is indisputable.
Since last Friday, our colleagues at the U.S. Park Police (USPP) have been subjected to violence; several sustained injuries, and some were hospitalized. In light of these activities last weekend, and at the request of the USPP, I requested the assistance of the National Guard, through the Secretary of Defense, to ensure we could maintain the security of President’s Park, the National Mall, and other public properties. Fortunately, my request for assistance was accepted. Since that time, I have met with some of these dedicated men and women in uniform and let them know we appreciate their support in keeping our monuments accessible and safe for all, including the peaceful protesters honoring the memory of Mr. Floyd and calling for justice.
At the Department of the Interior (Department), we are part of a diverse and dynamic community of public servants dedicated to advancing our varied missions and responsibilities on behalf of the American people. Much like American society and culture, our Department’s diversity is a strength, and having an inclusive workplace devoid of harassment is vitally important.
Among our most solemn responsibilities is to tell America’s stories and inform—through our many landmarks, monuments, and memorials—the lives and legacies of great Americans who have shaped our history, our society, and our quest for justice. These places include the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, the Lincoln Memorial, and many other sites that compose the African American Civil Rights Network—all recognizing, memorializing, and preserving the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Each site is not a mere snapshot in time but an enduring moment that informs the present and should inspire our efforts to ensure equality before the law.
All of us together are on an important journey to preserve, protect, and improve our America, which will require empathy for each other. Mr. Floyd's death should not have occurred, and we must never forget that. We must be diligent in remembering the courage and sacrifices made on our Nation's behalf by all, and we must be vigilant in the courage and sacrifices we each need to make the United States become a more perfect Union.
Thank you for your dedication and service to the American people.
David L. Bernhardt
Secretary of the Interior