ACLU Challenges Seattle’s WTO No Protest Zone

News Release: 
Monday, November 2, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today is filing its second lawsuit in United States District Court in Seattle challenging the City of Seattle’s establishment of a No Protest Zone during the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 1-3, 1999. The lawsuit challenges the imposition of the zone, its extension, and the manner of its enforcement. The ACLU filed the case on behalf of seven citizens whose rights to freedom of speech were violated by the City’s actions.

Plaintiffs include 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. Two plaintiffs were arrested while expressing their views. One of these, who had WTO conference credentials as a representative of a Non-Governmental Organization, was chased by police and arrested while talking to a reporter and citizens about his objections to WTO actions. Another was tackled and arrested by police after handing out copies of a New York Times editorial cartoon critical of WTO environmental policies.

One plaintiff had copies of the First Amendment that he was handing out to other citizens confiscated by police. Another individual twice had signs taken away by Seattle police, including one that said, "I Have a Right to Non-Violent Protest." One plaintiff had an anti-WTO sign ripped from his clothing by police, and another was grabbed by police and threatened with arrest if she did not remove a protest sticker she was wearing. (A full list of plaintiffs and violations of their civil liberties is included with this release.)

"The City essentially created a militarized zone in downtown Seattle and banned all protest within this zone. An American city must not get away with such flagrant violations of citizens’ freedoms. We intend to obtain a court ruling that the City’s actions were unconstitutional and cannot be repeated," said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.

In the late afternoon of November 30, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell proclaimed a Civil Emergency. The next morning he issued a Civil Emergency Order (described as a "limited curfew" order) creating a militarized zone in an area of two dozen blocks in the core of downtown Seattle. Police patrolled the borders of the zone and restricted entry to persons who had official WTO business, owners and employees of businesses within the zone, residents of the zone, and emergency and public safety personnel. In enforcing the zone, police prevented anyone who sought peacefully to express anti-WTO views from entering or remaining in the zone.

"The City made it a crime to engage in perfectly lawful acts of free speech. In establishing and enforcing the No Protest Zone, the City took action far beyond any needed for legitimate concerns to provide security." said Aaron Caplan, ACLU staff attorney.

"We acknowledge the City’s responsibility to provide security for WTO conference attendees. We know it can be done without the drastic measures we witnessed in Seattle. Mass demonstrations are not new to this country. Seattle must be a place that is safe for conventions and for freedom," said the ACLU’s Kathleen Taylor. During the WTO conference, the ACLU unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order nullifying the No Protest Zone. In his December 1, 1999 order denying the motion, Judge Robert Bryan of the U.S. District Court in Tacoma noted, "This order does not preclude the possibility that, when all of the facts and issues are examined in further litigation, the defendants’ action may be proven wrong." The ACLU believes that, with a full airing of the issues, the court will see the constitutional problems of the No Protest Zone.

Cooperating attorney James Lobsenz of the firm Carney Badley Smith & Spellman and ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan are handling the case.

Plaintiffs in ACLU-WA Lawsuit Challenging the No Protest Zone

  • Victor Menotti, San Francisco – He came to Seattle to attend the WTO conference as a credentialed representative of a Non-Governmental Organization, the International Forum on Globalization. On December 1 he was speaking at 5th & Pike to a journalist and interested citizens about his concerns over WTO policies on wood products. With no audible warning, police officers charged across 5th Ave. toward the small crowd. Ignoring everyone else, police pursued Menotti and arrested him; no formal criminal charges were ever filed.
  • Doug Skove, Vashon – On December 2 he was carrying 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 6th Ave., 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 5th Ave. another police officer confiscated a second sign of his without explanation.
  • Todd Stedl, Seattle – A University of Washington student, he was handing out copies of the text of the First Amendment to other citizens near 4th & Seneca on December 1. A police officer confiscated his remaining copies and told him to leave the No Protest Zone. After Stedl said he thought he was outside the No Protest Zone and asked for a receipt for the seized materials, officers told him to get moving.
  • Lauren Holloway, Seattle – She was walking on Fourth Ave. on December 1 after leaving a teach-in at the First United Methodist Church. At the border of the No Protest Zone at 4th & Seneca, police officers grabbed her sign reading, "It’s Our Duty, It’s Our Right, To Fight the Power." They also told her she would be arrested if she did not take off anti-WTO stickers from her clothing, including one with the message, "If it doesn’t work for families, it doesn’t work." When an officer grabbed her arm, she told him that she would "do it herself." She removed the WTO stickers from her clothing and walked away.
  • Ronald Matyjas, Seattle – He was walking to work on Pine St. toward the Pike Place Market on December 1 while displaying a "No WTO" sign on his back. An officer confronted him, telling him he could not enter downtown wearing the sign. The officer tore off the sign. Afraid to complain, he continued to work without the sign.
  • Thomas Sellman, Seattle – On December 1 he was handing out copies of a New York Times editorial cartoon, "The Voice of the Turtle," critical of WTO actions to overturn policies beneficial to sea turtles. On 6th Ave. near Sheraton, a police officer told him to turn around. As he started to do so, he gave a copy of the cartoon to a man who had asked for one. He was tackled from behind and arrested by police officers. Sellman was jailed and charged with failure to disperse and pedestrian interference; the charges were later dismissed.
  • Andrew Russell, Seattle – After attending a Women’s Day program at a nearby church, he approached the border of the No Protest Zone at 4th & Seneca on December 1. A police officer told him he had to remove an anti-WTO button. Russell took off his button and was allowed to enter the No Protest Zone.
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