Wash Post - Lawsuit Filed Over Availability Of Tickets

An antiwar group filed suit yesterday alleging that President Bush's inaugural committee has for weeks blocked the public from getting tickets to the inaugural parade route and has allowed only selected donors and supporters to purchase seats.

Although Presidential Inaugural Committee officials have repeatedly said that the tickets along the Pennsylvania Avenue route are available to the public, the suit alleges that individual members of the public are blocked from buying them unless they are Bush donors or supporters who have received an invitation and special identification number from the committee.

The lawsuit, filed by the ANSWER Coalition, seeks to stop the National Park Service from cordoning off large sections of Pennsylvania Avenue for Thursday's inauguration. A federal judge is expected to hold a hearing on the case early next week.

"Pennsylvania Avenue is considered American's Main Street," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice, which helped file the suit. "For the government to come in and take this space, to say you may only have access to this event if your viewpoint is approved by the incoming administration, is a fundamental violation of all of our First Amendment rights."

An inaugural official called the suit frivolous but did say that some parade bleacher seats were held in reserve for presidential supporters.

Steve Schmidt, communications director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said the public has lots of access to the inauguration. "Many of the inaugural events require tickets to attend," he said. "A great many require no tickets and are open to the public. The lawsuit is being reviewed, but this inaugural committee is operating no differently than any other inaugural committee for both Democratic and Republican presidents."

People answering phones at Ticketmaster yesterday said callers needed an invitation and identification number to buy a ticket. "As of right now, the only way you can get a ticket is if you get an invitation," one said. "We haven't heard anything yet, but I don't think they're going to release any to the public."

The lawsuit says the coalition has documents from a related suit showing that the 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee prevented members of the general public from purchasing bleacher seat tickets for that inaugural parade and provided those seats only for Bush donors, fundraisers, supporters and invited guests.

The coalition stresses that it is not contesting President Bush's right to select who sits near the Capitol to watch his swearing-in or in VIP seating at Lafayette Square and near the White House.

"We're only talking about the part that the general public thinks they're allowed to go to," Verheyden-Hilliard said. "If they oppose war in Iraq, they should be allowed to express that. If they are supporters of the Bush administration, they should be allowed to express that."

Anne Wilson, a coalition volunteer, submitted an affidavit as part of the lawsuit saying that she tried this week to purchase a parade ticket, as instructed by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. She called Ticketmaster, was routed to the presidential inaugural ticketing center and was told she needed an identification number and invitation to buy a ticket. She expressed her dismay and was told to call the Presidential Inaugural Committee, she said.

Tracey Schmitt, spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said last night, "People now interested in getting tickets should go to the Web site," though she warned, "There's an overwhelming demand." She said previously that anyone can walk up to watch the parade from various locations along the route.

Earlier yesterday, Jeanne Phillips, the inaugural committee chairman, said inauguration tickets were still available.

"We are still selling tickets," she said. "I mean, you can safely say we always have a few tickets at will call. We will be selling tickets until the last one is gone. It is going to be tight, but if you hurry on Sunday you might be able to get the last few."

The parade is expected to start at 2 p.m. Thursday after Bush's swearing-in on the Capitol steps.

Staff writers Timothy Dwyer and Susan Levine contributed to this report.

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