Seattle is sued by ACLU for WTO ‘no-protest zone’

Lise Olsen
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
8 Mar 2000

The American Civil Liberties Union went to federal court yesterday to try to prove that Seattle leaders trampled on citizens’ civil rights by declaring a so-called “no-protest zone” in the heart of downtown during the World Trade Organization meetings last fall.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven people who were arrested or harassed in or near a 25-block zone declared a “limited-curfew” area by Mayor Paul Schell on Dec.1.

One Seattle man alleged in the suit that he was harassed as he passed out copies of the First Amendment. Another Seattleite claimed he was arrested while handing out a political cartoon from The New York Times. Though the U. S. Supreme Court has upheld buffer zones of 15 to 35 feet around abortion clinics, the ACLU claims Seattle went too far in trying to close a 25-block area.

The city disputes that the area was a no-protest zone. Although access was limited to workers, media, police, city employees and WTO delegates, the mayor said protests were not banned.

“An American city must not get away with such flagrant violations of citizens’ freedoms. We intend to obtain a court ruling that the city’s actions were unconstitutional and cannot be repeated,” said Kathleen Taylor, the ACLU’s executive director.

During the WTO, a federal judge in Tacoma denied the ACLU’s request to nullify the zone.

The judge said the city had presented sufficient justification for “reasonable restrictions on public freedoms.” But the judge noted that his order did not preclude the possibility that the city might later be “proven wrong.”

Since December, the ACLU has received 500 complaints – including those from the seven plaintiffs.

The complaints showed that even wearing the wrong pin could gain unwelcome attention, according to the lawsuit. Andrew Russell of Seattle said police told him to take his pin off – WTO with a slash through it – when he entered the zone on his way to a teach-in at a church.

Thomas Sellman of Seattle, who was arrested after handing out copies of a political cartoon, spent two days in jail, though charges against him were later dismissed.

Todd Sedl, a University of Washington student, said he was shocked when police seized copies of the First Amendment that he was trying to hand out outside the “no protest zone.”

“It was just the First Amendment,” Sedl said. “I had underlined the part about the right to peaceably assemble, and that was it.”

The suit seeks damages and names as defendants the city, Schell, former police Chief Norm Stamper and two officers who participated in arrests.

In an earlier interview, City Attorney Mark Sidran defended the zone as being one that was narrowly enough drawn to protect both the rights of the protesters a well as those of the WTO delegates. He noted the zone was drawn to allow delegates to pass between downtown hotels and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Sidran could not be reached for comment yesterday.