WASHINGTON (CN) - Federal agencies have stonewalled efforts to determine how a possible buffer zone around Donald Trump's $200 million luxury hotel in Washington D.C., will impact public access when it opens next month, free speech advocates claim in federal court.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund says the public spaces in question, the area incorporating and surrounding the city's historic post office site and known as "America's Main Street" have held national historic site status since 1965, and boast a long legacy of free speech activity.
That includes historic civil rights, anti-war and women's rights protests.
"Hundreds of thousands of people, from across the United States and within the District of Columbia, have marched on these historic boulevards and park lands," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, who filed the 18-page complaint, said in an interview.
That legacy is now in danger, according to the lawsuit.
At issue are the public sidewalk, the plaza surrounding the Benjamin Franklin statue and the street space adjacent to the hotel, which Trump is building in the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Segmenting those areas out and privatizing them for the benefit of the Trump Organization is completely anathema to the democratic expression of free speech," Verheyden-Hilliard said.
"The public spaces of Pennsylvania Avenue including the sidewalks and plaza abutting the hotel do not belong to Donald Trump," the complaint asserts, which the free speech advocacy group filed on Wednesday.
For five months the group has tried to get information about any agreements the Trump Organization reached with the General Services Administration - which leased the property to Trump - and the Department of the Interior's National Park Service. Neither have adequately responded to Partnership for Civil Justice Fund freedom of information requests, the lawsuit alleges.
The group requested "all communications, emails, requests, applications, planning documents, memoranda of understanding, permits or other authorizing documents that would cede this space from the public to the Trump Organization."
So far, the agencies have failed to meet mandated deadlines for document production, the group says.
Verheyden-Hilliard says the lawsuit was sparked by the group's concerns that the above named agencies may have agreed to Trump's demand to restrict public access around the hotel. The group began investigating potential restrictions in February after information began trickling out that the District of Columbia had agreed to set aside one lane of traffic for the hotel's priority use for valet parking, she said.
"It's highly improper to take what's called America's main street, and give it a priority use for the private profit of Donald Trump," she said.
Such a move is unprecedented in Verheyden-Hilliard's view, she noted.
"I think it's just stunning and inappropriate that the federal and District government would be entering into these type of deals with the Trump Organization to the detriment of fundamental free speech and democratic rights," she said.
Verheyden-Hilliard said it is unclear at this point what public access would remain if the Trump hotel creates a buffer zone. In addition to the loss of one lane of traffic, she said the group believes a restriction is being placed on the Ben Franklin statue plaza that would take it out of public for a status.
"The public is entitled to know whether and to what extent the federal and municipal governments have entered into agreements that will suppress or extinguish free speech in proximity to the building leased to the Trump Organization, which is led by a presidential candidate who has stated an extraordinary and open hostility to the First Amendment," the complaint states.
People should still be able to gather there for protest, Verheyden-Hilliard said.
"The fact is that Donald Trump made himself a magnet for political protest and for dissent from his racist, sexist views and people have the right to be there and express their views in opposition to him," she said.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
dubs itself a "public interest legal organization." It successfully challenged a military-style checkpoint in predominantly African-American D.C. neighborhood, and fought for restriction free over-the-counter access of emergency birth control. The group also secured a multi-million dollar settlement for violations of Occupy Wall Street protestors' rights.
According to Verheyden-Hilliard, the group is eager to get the requested documents to uncover the scope of any existing agreements and open them to public scrutiny and debate. The group will also evaluate further legal challenge.
The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a media spokesperson for the National Park Service, said " The NPS does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation. But what I can share is that the Partnership for Civil Justice submitted a FOIA request to the NPS on February 29, 2016 and that request is in process."