Seattle Settles ACLU Lawsuit Over Violation of Free Speech Rights During WTO Protests

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
September 14, 2006 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — Resolving a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Seattle officials will pay a settlement to two people whose free speech rights were violated during the World Trade Organization protests of 1999. The ACLU had charged that police arrested Victor Menotti simply because he was talking about WTO policies on a downtown street, and that a police officer confiscated a sign from Doug Skove because he did not like its content.

“Officials must honor the rights of peaceful protesters even when the mayor has declared a state of emergency,” said Aaron Caplan, an ACLU of Washington staff attorney. “The settlement is an important step in holding the city accountable.”

During the WTO protests in 1999, then-Mayor Paul Schell issued a Civil Emergency Order creating a militarized zone in an area of two dozen blocks in the core of downtown Seattle. Police patrolled the borders of this No-Protest Zone and restricted entry to persons who had official WTO business; owners, employees, and customers of businesses within the zone; residents of the zone; and emergency and public safety personnel. In practice, police prevented anyone who sought to express anti-WTO views from entering or remaining in the zone, even if they lived or worked there.

The ACLU charged that the city’s actions far exceeded any legitimate needs to provide security, and filed its lawsuit in March 2000 on behalf of individuals who were either kept out or forced out of the No-Protest Zone solely because they had anti-WTO cartoons, buttons, stickers, or signs. One man represented in the lawsuit was stopped by police for handing out copies of the First Amendment. Three plaintiffs who were originally parties to the lawsuit accepted settlements of $5,000 each from the city in August 2000. Today’s settlement awarded $62,500 to Menotti and $12,500 to Skove.

Menotti traveled to Seattle from his home in San Francisco to attend the WTO conference as a credentialed representative of a non-governmental organization, the International Forum on Globalization. On December 1, 1999, he was speaking at Fifth & Pike to a journalist and interested citizens about his concerns over WTO policies on wood products. With no audible warning, police officers charged across Fifth Avenue toward the small crowd. Ignoring everyone else, police pursued Menotti and arrested him; no formal criminal charges were ever filed.

Skove, who lives in Vashon, Washington, attended the protests on December 2 carrying a sign reading, “Is the WTO in Control of Seattle Also?” on one side, and “I Have a Right To Non-Violent Protest” on the other. While he was talking to a journalist on Sixth Avenue, a police officer came up from behind and snatched the sign. When Skove complained, the officer informed him that he was not supposed to protest in that area. Near Sixth Avenue, another police officer confiscated a second sign of his without explanation.

In 2005, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case that the protections of the Bill of Rights apply even during a time of public unrest. The appeals court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the police violated the rights of Menotti and Skove.

Caplan and ACLU cooperating attorney James Lobsenz of the firm Carney Badley Smith & Spellman handled the case on behalf of the protesters. Still pending is a lawsuit filed by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice on behalf of people arrested at Westlake Mall during the protests.

Information on the Ninth Circuit Appeals case is online at:

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