Selah Alliance for Equality and Selah residents file a lawsuit against the City of Selah for censoring Black Lives Matter-related speech, supported by Perkins Coie and the ACLU of Washington

News Release: 
Tuesday, December 8, 2020
SELAH – The Selah Alliance for Equality (S.A.F.E.) and Selah residents filed a lawsuit against the City of Selah, its Mayor, and its City Administrator for censoring the free speech of Selah residents in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 5 of the Washington State Constitution. The lawsuit, Selah Alliance for Equality, et al v. City of Selah, was filed in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, after city officials erased chalk messages and confiscated and destroyed signs posted in public locations showing support for racial equity, the Black Lives Matter movement, and police reform.

As nationwide protests grew in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a number of Selah residents gathered to demonstrate publicly and placed temporary chalk messages and art in support of racial equality in public places throughout the city. In response, Selah city officials made statements and took actions indicating that the exercise of free speech in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was unwelcome, wrongfully singling out the chalk messages for erasure, designating them as “graffiti.”

This prompted community members to form S.A.F.E., advocating to make Selah a more welcoming place for communities of color.

“We just want Selah to be a place that is welcoming to all people, regardless of race. Protesting and voicing our opinions are not crimes, and shouldn’t be treated like they are,” said Courtney Hernandez, a member and administrator of S.A.F.E.

The group displayed signs in public places that promoted racial equity and criticized the actions of city officials. In retaliation, the city censored their public comments submitted to city council meetings and confiscated and destroyed their signs. Officials claimed the signs violated Selah’s municipal code, but the law has been selectively applied to target S.A.F.E.’s signs because of their messaging. Further, city officials encouraged private citizens to remove and destroy the signs.

“The City of Selah is actively trying to silence Black people, like me and my family, and support for Black people. That makes us feel unsafe and unwelcome,” said Rev. Donald J. Davis. “But it greatly encourages me to see Selah residents of all races coming together to speaking out against this injustice. Selah should be welcoming and fostering this kind of unity, not promoting division and fear.”

The complaint seeks to prevent the city and its officials from further interfering with residents’ free speech, and alleges that Chapter 10.38 of the city’s municipal code violates both the First Amendment and the Washington State Constitution because it unconstitutionally restricts speech on the basis of its content.

The suit was filed on behalf of:

The Selah Alliance for Equality (S.A.F.E.), a grass-roots community-led organization that formed in the wake of actions by city officials. The organization’s goal is to spread messages of anti-racism and promote equality in the city of Selah.

Courtney Hernandez, a resident of Yakima County who grew up in Selah. Hernandez is a member and administrator of S.A.F.E. and organized the first Black Lives Matter protest in Selah in June.

Rev. Donald J. Davis, a resident of Yakima County whose granddaughter lives in Selah. Rev. Davis is a member of S.A.F.E. and a well-known pastor who is active in the community. His family was involved in the civil rights movement and he had attended marches as a child. He participated in the Black Lives Matter march in Selah in June.

Laura Perez, a resident of Selah and member of S.A.F.E. She was a target of the city’s selective enforcement of its municipal code. Perez received a letter from the Selah Chief of Police in June wrongfully designating pro-Black Lives Matter chalk art in front of her home as unauthorized “graffiti.” The letter further threatened to refer her son (who did not create the art) to municipal court for prosecution if the chalk art continued.

“It’s troubling to see city leaders behave this way and concerning that they singled out my son. The city should be a more inclusive place and we deserve to voice our opinions without retaliation,” Perez said.

Anita Callahan, a resident of Selah and member and administrator of S.A.F.E.

Kalah James, resident of Selah, member and administrator of S.A.F.E. and leads S.A.F.E.’s Education working group, tasked with encouraging Selah schools to be more inclusive for her sons and other students. James and her family participated in chalking events throughout the summer.

Charlotte Town, a resident of Selah and member and administrator of S.A.F.E. Town leads the organization’s outreach to Selah City Council. She is the Public Outreach Manager and leader of SAFE’s City Council Outreach working group.

Amanda Watson, a resident of Portland, Oregon, who grew up in Selah. Watson is part of S.A.F.E.’s marketing work group and joined the organization to promote racial equity and inclusivity in Selah, her hometown.

Anna Whitlock, a resident of Selah. Whitlock is also a member and administrator of S.A.F.E.

“Selah residents, like all American citizens, have a right to the freedom of speech and expression. The City’s campaign to suppress minority and dissonant viewpoints, and to censor public messages, is not only wrong — it is unconstitutional.” said Joseph P. Cutler, an attorney at Perkins Coie LLP, representing plaintiffs. “We are committed to making sure all Washington residents know their First Amendment rights will be protected.”

“The First Amendment is vital to our democracy and must be respected, even if someone disagrees with the message,” said Antoinette Davis, attorney for the ACLU of Washington. “Government officials and leaders must not censor free speech just because they disagree with it or if it is critical of their leadership.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Joseph P. Cutler, Carolyn Gilbert, Reina Almon-Griffin, Jane E. Carmody, and Jacob Stillwell of Perkins Coie LLP; and Antoinette Davis, Nancy Talner, and Crystal Pardue of the ACLU of Washington.