Appeals Court Overturns Seattle's Ordinance for Granting Permits to March

News Release: 
Monday, December 15, 2008

Ruling Says Law Gives Police Too Much Discretion

In a ruling that upholds the free speech rights of political activists, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today found that the City of Seattle's ordinance for granting permits for parades and marches is unconstitutional. The ruling came in a case brought by the ACLU of Washington on behalf of the October 22nd Coalition, a group that opposes police brutality. The court agreed with the ACLU's contention that the law gives police too much discretion to revoke or alter permits.

"Marching in the streets is a traditional way for Americans to express their political views. Police should treat peaceful political demonstrators with respect. This decision reinforces the idea that police cannot arbitrarily revoke a permit that marchers have lawfully obtained," said ACLU-WA Legal Director Sarah Dunne.

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. On the evening of October 22, approximately 80-100 people gathered at the college to take part in the march and rally. When the group moved into the street to begin its march, a Seattle police officer informed organizers that the parade permit had been rescinded because they had too few people.

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 ACLU filed suit in 2004. In 2006, in an agreement that partially settled the lawsuit, the City of Seattle paid $47,500 to the October 22 Coalition for damages, attorney fees, and other costs for the 2003 incident.

The ACLU pursued an appeal on its claim that Seattle's parade ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. The ACLU said Seattle's regulations are confusing, burdensome, and so vague that they unlawfully give police unfettered discretion to alter or revoke parade permits.

In striking down the ordinance, the court said, "The Parade Ordinance allows the officials who administer Seattle's permit scheme to deny marchers access to the streets without even the barest expression as to why their march needed to be placed on the sidewalk in the interest of pedestrian and traffic safety."

The 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. 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 October 22 Coalition is represented by ACLU cooperating attorneys Michael Ryan, Ryan Redekopp, and Alex Wagner of K & L Gates, and by ACLU attorney Sarah Dunne.