Tacoma Strengthens Free Speech Protections to Settle Suit over Peltier March

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The ACLU of Washington announced today the settlement of a lawsuit against the City of Tacoma over excessive fees required of groups organizing political marches.  Under terms of the settlement, the City of Tacoma amended its ordinance regulating parades and other special events so that organizations are not required to pay unduly burdensome fees in order to exercise their free speech rights.  The City Council adopted the revised ordinance on Oct. 21.

“The right to express our political views in a parade is one of this nation’s highest values,” said ACLU Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.  “Charging prohibitive fees for police escorts will effectively bar everyone but the financially well-off from protesting on Tacoma’s public streets.  This settlement is a victory for the free speech rights of smaller groups,” added Hampton.

The ACLU had sued the City in February 2003 on behalf of Arthur Miller, the coordinator of the Tacoma Leonard Peltier Support Group (TLPSG), a group that works to advance the rights of Native Americans.  Miller filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to challenge the City’s demand that the group pay a minimum of $1,000 for police escorts in order to get a parade permit.  TLPSG, like many other political organizations with limited financial resources, cannot afford such high fees.

TLPSG has staged an annual political march in Tacoma for the past decade without incident.  The number of participants in these marches usually numbered less than 100 people and proceeded entirely on public sidewalks.   This year the group decided to move the event to the street and to apply for a parade permit because it expected a larger number of people to participate than in previous years.  The march’s organizer was joined by four additional organizations, including the Seattle LPSG, Native People’s Alliance Friends and Allies, Native Coalition, and the Northwest American Indian Movement.  Miller submitted an application for a parade permit so that the group could march in the street.

The City insisted that the group pay a minimum of $1,000 for police escorts as a condition for issuance of a parade permit.  TLPSG is funded entirely by donations and relies exclusively on volunteers to pursue its organizational mission.  It operates on an annual budget of approximately $500.  When the group was unable to pay the required fee, the City denied Miller’s application for a permit.  Miller filed suit in federal court and sought a temporary restraining order (TRO).  The court denied Miller's motion for a TRO, forcing the march to proceed on the sidewalks.  About 400 people participated in the march without incident on Feb. 8.

The revised ordinance recognizes the special constitutional protections afforded free speech activities such as marches and rallies.  The new provisions permit waiver of insurance requirements for free speech activities if purchasing insurance would be too financially burdensome for the group applying for a permit.  The new provisions limit the fees the City can charge such applicants to the administrative costs involved in processing the permit application.  The City of Tacoma also has agreed to pay Miller $500 in damages and $25,000 in attorney fees.

Attorneys James Donohue and Felix Gavi Luna of the firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe handled the case for the ACLU.

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