By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A public interest group urged U.S. officials on Wednesday to free up Washington landmarks for thousands of people planning protests around the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
The Washington-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund said the National Park Service had handed over control of sites such as the Lincoln Memorial to the private committee overseeing Republican Trump's inauguration.
The move had left at least a dozen protest groups without prime venues, a violation of Americans' constitutional rights, fund officials said.
The National Park Service "has done a massive land grab inhibiting all those who want to exercise their right to free speech," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a co-founder of the fund, said at a news conference.
Trump's inaugural committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump's election on Nov. 8 led to days of sometimes-violent protests by people who said the New York businessman and former reality TV star encouraged racism, bigotry and misogyny in his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton and was a threat to American values.
National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said agency rules in place since 2008 give an inaugural committee preferential access to some public areas along Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Mall and surrounding land.
A federal court has upheld the rules and most public sidewalks along the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue, the boulevard running from the Capitol to the White House, are open to protesters. The NPS is reviewing the pending applications, Litterst said in an email.
The Partnership for Civil Justice said that it was the first time in recent memory that permits to the land had been extended to a private inauguration committee in the days around a president's swearing-in. But it said that despite the decision, city law allowed peaceful street protests to go ahead without permits.
The fund is prepared to sue to get the permits pulled so protesters may gather near the White House and the National Mall, Verheyden-Hilliard said.
District of Columbia officials are expecting around a million people for the inauguration and events surrounding it.
Several groups have vowed to demonstrate. More than 135,000 people have said they would take part in a march for women's rights the day after the ceremony.
The committee has not said what it will do with the sites and the National Park Service has said it has no plans to use them, Verheyden-Hilliard said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Grant McCool)