ACLU Joins Lawsuit Challenging Protest Restrictions at Westlake Park

News Release: 
Thursday, September 13, 2012

The ACLU of Washington today announced it is entering a lawsuit filed by several organizations and individuals challenging City of Seattle restrictions on protest activities in Seattle city parks. The ACLU is representing Real Change, a nonprofit organization which advocates for the homeless.  The suit arose from restrictions the City sought to impose on an April sleep-out event in Westlake Park organized by Real Change.

“Real Change’s sleep-in included distributing handbills, displaying protest signs, and presenting speeches on homelessness. These are clearly free speech activities protected by our Constitution, yet officials tried to restrict them,” said ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne. “The City’s current park permitting law gives officials too much arbitrary discretion in granting or denying applications. It needs to be changed to meet constitutional standards,” added Dunne. 

In April 2012, plaintiff Tim Harris, as a representative for Real Change, applied for a permit from Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation to engage in a 24- hour sleep-out protest at Westlake Park. The event was part of a campaign named Occupy the Committee to End Homeless in King County (Occupy CEHKC), which seeks to mobilize Seattle’s homeless population and to raise public awareness about homelessness. Organizers identified a sleep-out at the site as a powerful way to critique the City of Seattle’s concerted effort over the past 15 years to “sanitize” the downtown business core.

The City denied the permit application and informed Harris that granting a permit would be subject to several conditions, including a curfew from 10:00 pm until 6:00 am.  Event organizers applied “under protest” for a permit that complied with the required conditions, paid the application fee, and then sought Emergency Motion for Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and Preliminary Injunction in federal district court (Real Change, et al v. City of Seattle, et al.) The court granted the TRO enjoining the City from enforcing camping restrictions in Seattle’s Municipal Code during the protest.  The organizers held the 24-hour sleep-out as planned on April 24-25.

In joining the Real Change litigation, the ACLU seeks to ensure the Seattle Parks and Recreation permitting process comports with the First Amendment. All speakers, regardless of their message, need to be treated equally when they apply for permits. In an earlier lawsuit brought by the ACLU-WA on behalf of the October 22nd Coalition, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 found that Seattle’s ordinance for granting permits for parades and marches was unconstitutional.  The court agreed with the ACLU’s contention that the law gave police too much discretion to revoke or alter permits. Seattle subsequently revised its ordinance to comply with constitutional standards for freedom of speech.  The ACLU has identified similar constitutional failings in the City of Seattle’s Parks and Recreation permitting process to those in the challenged parade permitting process. 

Representing Real Change for the ACLU-WA are staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and La Rond Baker.