Today the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even in times of unrest, the government cannot arrest protesters simply because of their message. The ruling came in the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's lawsuit challenging the City of Seattle's establishment and enforcement of a No Protest Zone during the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999.
The appeals court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether, in practice, the City's policy was to create a No Protest Zone where people were turned away or arrested based solely on the content of their speech. The trial court also will decide whether the police violated the rights of ACLU clients Victor Menotti and Doug Skove. Police arrested Menotti simply because he was talking about WTO policies on a downtown street, and a police officer confiscated a sign from Skove because he did not like its content. Unfortunately, the appeals court also found that the Mayor's order establishing the boundaries of the No Protest Zone did not, when viewed in isolation, violate constitutional rights. This portion of the ruling was decided on a 2-1 vote and resulted in the dismissal of claims of ACLU clients Thomas Sellman and Todd Stedl. Police arrested and jailed Sellman for distributing leaflets, and confiscated Stedl's leaflets that contained the text of the First Amendment.
"In practice, the City's policy was to keep peaceful protesters out of the No Protest Zone while letting in shoppers or anyone else who was not exercising the right to free speech," said ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan. "It does not make us safer to make speech illegal. We look forward to proving at trial that the City's policy did not serve legitimate security concerns."
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 the 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 filed the suit in March 2000 on behalf of citizens whose rights to freedom of speech were violated by the City's actions. Plaintiffs were seven 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. Included was a person who was handing out copies of the First Amendment, but they were confiscated by police. Another plaintiff individual twice had signs taken away by Seattle police, including one that said, "I Have a Right to Non-Violent Protest." Three plaintiffs who were originally parties to the lawsuit accepted monetary damages of $5,000 each from the City in settlement of their claims in August 2000.
ACLU cooperating attorney James Lobsenz of the firm Carney Badley Spellman and ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan are handling the case. The case was consolidated on appeal with Hankin v. City of Seattle, a related WTO case brought by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
Plaintiffs Who Will Have Trials
- 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 Dec. 1, 1999, he was speaking at Fifth Avenue and Pike Street 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.
- Doug Skove, Vashon – On Dec. 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 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 Fifth Avenue another police officer confiscated a second sign of his without explanation.