Fast fact: It is illegal to deliver the Gettysburg Address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial without permission from the U.S. National Park Service.
On President’s Day — standing where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” — Phillip Howell, 25, recited Lincoln’s famous address and was quickly stopped by a Park Police officer. He told Howell that he could not give speeches on the steps of the memorial without a permit.
“He called me Abe, and then I turned around and he said, ‘Do you have a permit?’ I said ‘no’ and he said, ‘well you can’t do that here then,'” Howell told The Daily Caller. “Then I said, ‘I’m just giving the Gettysburg Address, come on, it’s President’s Day.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care what you’re giving, You’re not allowed to do that here. I don’t care what speech or what agenda you want to give.'”
Confused as to why it is actually illegal to read the words carved into the memorial’s wall in a loud voice, but not wanting to cause any trouble, the 6-foot-4 Howell, who sports a thick beard and looks just like Honest Abe in a top hat and suit, moved to the bottom of the steps and delivered the rest of the speech to a cheering crowd.
But his troubles didn’t end there.
Some friends suggested that Howell could make some money off his talent, so they passed around a basket and tourists dropped in a few dollars. That’s when the officer walked down the steps and asked the duo if they had a license for street vending.
“I could arrest you,” Howell recalled the officer saying.
They told the officer they didn’t know it was illegal and would be on their way. The officer refused, detained them at the base of the memorial, and wrote Howell and his friend holding the basket $100 in tickets.
“We tried to be real clear that we weren’t trying to cause any trouble,” Howell said. “He was pretty persistent that he was going to give us a fine.”
Under the legal code, the steps on the Lincoln Memorial are considered a “restricted” area to any kind of demonstrative activity. Demonstrators can, however, apply for a permit to use the platform area further down the stairs and a vending license to sell goods or entertainment.
A spokesman from the Park Police said that the Park Service retains the permit policy to ensure that groups have the facilities and space available to hold events. That includes demonstrations by one person, and the agency applies the code equally for everyone.
“It’s not meant to be restrictive,” said Park Police spokesman Sgt. David Schlosser. “This process is to allow the National Park Service to further its mission in protecting the natural and cultural resources it is charged with administering.”
“Whatever your message is, if it’s there, it’s a restricted area and we’re going to let you know and ask you to move down to the bottom of the stairs.” he said. “Then you can yell away. Have at it.”
Howell said he understands the reason for the law, and that there are no hard feelings.
“It does seem a little ironic that the ‘Land of the Free’ cannot be so free at times,” he told TheDC. “But other than that, I have no issue with what the officers did.”
Howell is planning to sharpen his act, and in the future, he’ll get a permit.
To find out what he’s up to next, you can follow Howell on Twitter at @LooksLikeLincoln.
Email Chris Moody and follow him on Twitter