Appeals Court Finds Government May Have Violated Rights of WTO Protesters in Seattle

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
June 1, 2005 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled that even in times of unrest, the government cannot arrest protesters simply because of the content 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.

“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. “Making speech illegal does not make us safer.”

In issuing its ruling, 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 will now decide whether the police violated the rights of ACLU clients Victor Menotti and Doug Skove. According to the ACLU, 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.

The arrests came after then-Mayor Paul Schell issued a Civil Emergency Order creating a militarized zone in an area of two-dozen blocks around the WTO 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. However, the ACLU charged that 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 lawsuit in March 2000 on behalf of Skove, Menotti and five other individuals who say that their rights to freedom of speech were violated by the city’s actions. Each of the ACLU’s clients 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 which were subsequently confiscated by police. Another individual twice had signs taken away by Seattle police, including one stating, “I Have a Right to Non-Violent Protest.”

Three plaintiffs who were originally part of the lawsuit accepted monetary damages of $5,000 each from the city in settlement of their claims in August 2000.

“We look forward to going back to trial court and proving that the city’s policy did not serve legitimate security concerns,” Caplan said.

Caplan and ACLU cooperating attorney James Lobsenz of the firm Carney Badley Spellman 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.

More Information on ACLU Clients Who Will Have Trials

  • Victor Menotti of San Francisco 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, 1999, he was speaking at the corner of 5th 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 5th Avenue toward the small crowd. Ignoring everyone else, police pursued Menotti and arrested him; no formal criminal charges were ever filed.
  • Doug Skove, of Vashon, Washington, was walking around downtown Seattle on December 2 carrying a sign which read on one side, “Is the WTO in Control of Seattle Also?” and “I Have a Right To Non-Violent Protest” on the other. While he was talking to a journalist on 6th Avenue, a police officer came up from behind and snatched the sign. When Skove complained, the officer informed him that he was not allowed to protest in that area. Near 5th Avenue, a different police officer confiscated a second sign from Skove without explanation.

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