ACLU of Washington Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Free Speech Rights of Seattle Marchers

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
April 14, 2004 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — Seeking to protect free speech rights on Seattle streets, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court here challenging the city’s Parade and Special Events Ordinances.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the October 22 Coalition, a protest group officially granted a parade permit by the city that was nonetheless barred by the Seattle Police Department from marching on the street. The ACLU said the city’s regulations are confusing, burdensome, and so vague that they wrongly give police unfettered discretion to alter or revoke parade permits.

“Marching in the streets is a traditional way for Americans to express their political views,” said ACLU Legal Program Director Julya Hampton. “Yet activists in Seattle have long experienced difficulty in seeking to hold peaceful marches. Too often, city officials have set up unreasonable obstacles when people try to obtain a permit for a march.”

The ACLU lawsuit addresses longstanding problems that many activists have experienced in seeking to hold peaceful marches in Seattle. It comes after years of troubleshooting by the ACLU for groups encountering difficulty with the city’s permit process. For instance, Seattle uses three separate ordinances that apply to free speech activities in public places, each of which has its own standards and procedures for granting a permit.

“The ordinances have imprecise and unduly subjective terms that make seeking a permit very frustrating,” Hampton said. “Officials can deny a permit based on a number of broad factors that lack any objective criteria. Our goal in this lawsuit is to update Seattle’s overly bureaucratic and antiquated permitting system for public demonstrations.”

The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation is a national organization that seeks to draw attention to issues related to police brutality by organizing an annual National Day of Protest. The Coalition has affiliates in 40 cities, all of which coordinate marches and other demonstrations on October 22nd each year. The Seattle Coalition has organized an annual march and rally in Seattle since 2000.

In 2003, the Seattle Coalition obtained both a parade permit and a special events permit authorizing the group to march from Seattle Central Community College to a rally at Hing Hay Park. The parade permit did not include a requirement that a minimum number of marchers participate in order for it to be valid. But when group of approximately 80-100 people began their march on October 22, a Seattle police officer informed organizers that the parade permit had been rescinded because they had too few people. The police officer declined to provide any documentation explaining when or why the permit had been rescinded.

Prevented from marching in the street, the participants were forced to proceed on the sidewalk and stop at all the intersections. As a result, the October 22 Coalition was unable to march as a cohesive body since many participants were cut off from the larger group at intersection lights, limiting the march’s effectiveness. Throughout the march, the police occupied at least one lane of traffic, thereby closing off the very streets the marchers were not allowed to use. In addition, a police officer grabbed a sign from a marcher and confiscated it, and the sign was never returned.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction barring the city from violating the rights of the October 22 Coalition in the future. It also seeks a court ruling that Seattle’s Parade and Special Events Ordinances are unconstitutional because they allow city officials and police to place arbitrary conditions on permits and to revoke them without notice.

ACLU cooperating attorneys Michael Ryan and Christopher Varas of Preston Gates & Ellis and ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan are handling the case.

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