City of Seattle Agrees to Pay $47,500 in Lawsuit over Disruption of March

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The City of Seattle has paid $47,500 to the October 22 Coalition in an agreement that partially settles a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of the Coalition over police disruption of the group’s 2003 march against police brutality. The lawsuit challenges the actions of Seattle Police officers who rescinded the group’s lawfully obtained parade permit only moments before their march was scheduled to begin. The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court in 2004.

Under terms of the agreement, the City paid the Coalition $47,500 in settlement of claims for damages, attorney fees, and other costs for the 2003 incident. The Coalition will pursue on appeal its claim that Seattle’s parade ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. The ACLU says Seattle’s regulations are confusing, burdensome, and so vague that they unlawfully give police unfettered discretion to alter or revoke parade permits.

“Marching in the streets is a traditional way for Americans to express their political views. Police should treat peaceful political demonstrators with respect. This settlement reinforces the idea that police cannot arbitrarily revoke a permit that marchers have lawfully obtained,” said ACLU staff attorney Aaron Caplan.

“Currently, there is nothing to compel police in Seattle to obey their own laws. To the extent that a lawsuit can help change that, we’ll continue with it,” said Dan DiLeva of the October 22 Coalition.

The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation is a national organization that seeks to draw attention to issues related to police brutality by organizing an annual National Day of Protest. The Coalition has affiliates in 40 cities, all of which coordinate marches and other demonstrations on Oct. 22 each year. The Seattle Coalition has organized an annual march and rally in Seattle since 2000.
In 2003 the Seattle Coalition obtained both a parade permit and a special events permit authorizing the group to march from Seattle Central Community College to a rally at Hing Hay Park. The parade permit did not include a requirement that a minimum number of marchers participate in order for it to be valid. On the evening of Oct. 22, approximately 80-100 people gathered at the college to take part in the march and rally. When the group moved into the street to begin its march, a Seattle police officer informed organizers that the parade permit had been rescinded because they had too few people.

Prevented from marching in the street, the participants were forced to proceed on the sidewalk and stop at all the intersections. As a result, the October 22 Coalition was unable to march as a cohesive body since many participants were cut off from the larger group at intersection lights, limiting the march’s effectiveness. Throughout the march, the police occupied at least one lane of traffic, thereby closing off the very streets the marchers were not allowed to use. In addition, a police officer grabbed a sign from a marcher and confiscated it, and the sign was never returned.

On March 13, 2006, U S District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that the parade ordinance was not unconstitutionally vague because it was narrowly drawn and provided adequate guidance to the police chief in making a permit decision. However, Judge Lasnik also ruled that the ACLU had raised sufficient questions to warrant a trial about whether the October 22 Coalition's parade was forced off the streets because the police disagreed with its message. "A reasonable juror could conclude that the on-the-spot decision to force the marchers onto the sidewalk was motivated by the content of their message," he wrote. The opinion chided the city for "the apparently widespread practice of modifying parade permits as participants are gathering in the streets, based on conditions that were foreseeable at the time the permit was first issued." The October 22 Coalition plans to appeal the ruling regarding the constitutionality of the parade ordinance.

The lawsuit addresses longstanding problems that many activists have experienced in seeking to hold peaceful marches in Seattle. It comes after years of troubleshooting by the ACLU for groups encountering difficulty with the City’s permit process. Seattle uses three separate ordinances that apply to free speech activities in public places, each of which has its own standards and procedures for granting a permit.

The October 22 Coalition is represented by ACLU cooperating attorneys Michael Ryan and Christopher Varas and by staff attorney Aaron Caplan.