Friday, June 3, 2005
Court Revives Some Claims Against Seattle Police Over Suppression of World Trade Organization Protests
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Seattle police may have violated the rights of demonstrators arrested during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests through discriminatory enforcement of an emergency order barring most access to a 25-square-block section of downtown, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A 2-1 majority of the panel agreed that the city had the right to block off part of downtown Seattle when the protests turned violent, holding that then-Mayor Paul Schell’s emergency order was not unconstitutional on its face.
But Judge Ronald M. Gould, writing for the court, said District Judge Barbara Rothstein of the Western District of Washington erred in dismissing the class-action plaintiffs’ claim that the police violated the First Amendment by strictly enforcing the order against WTO opponents while allowing access to others who did not fall within the limited express exceptions to the mauyor’s directive, and/or denying persons identified as WTO opponents the right of access even when they fell within those exceptions.
“While respecting the liberty of protesters, a city must be permitted to act reasonably, within the bounds of the Constitution, to fulfill its responsibilities of providing physical security and the maintenance of order that is required for all of a city’s resident’s and visitors,” Gould wrote.
“However,” the judge went on to say, “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to appellants, in some instances police conduct may have gone too far and infringed on certain individual protesters’ constitutional rights by making the content of their expressed views the test for their entry into the restricted zone.”
Gould cited, among other things, evidence that some people who were properly allowed inside the restricted area were later accosted by officers when they were seen wearing stickers or buttons expressing disapproval of the WTO. The class action was brought on behalf of hundreds of demonstrators who were arrested, but not convicted of any crimes.
Some 50,000 protesters swarmed the downtown area during the protests. A relatively small number of protesters smashed storefronts and overwhelmed police, who responded with tear gas and mass arrests. Damage totaled about $2.5 million, according to the city.
The events had wide repercussions in public life in the city, as officials were accused of both inadequate planning and overreaction. . Then-Police Chief Norman Stamper moved up his announced retirement by close to a year, although he denied it was a result of the protests, and Schell was defeated for re-election after his handling of the demonstrations became a major campaign issue.
While reinstating claims against the city, the appellate panel affirmed Rothstein’s ruling that Schell and Stamper were immune. Since the emergency order was constitutional on its face, any individual liability imposed on the mayor or police chief would have to be based on evidence that they were personally involved in the allegedly unconstitutional enforcement practices, and there was none. Gould reasoned.
U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver of Arizona, sitting by designation, concurred in Gould’s opinion. Judge Richard A. Paez dissented in part, arguing that the facial challenge had merit. The majority, he said, “exaggerates [the] pervasiveness” of the violence.
Paez said the emergency order was overbroad in that it covered more territory than necessary to control the violent portion of the demonstrations and should not have banned peaceful activities along with violent ones.
The case is Menotti v. City of Seattle, 02-35971.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company