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Seattle police flatly wrong on free speech, protest

A small group of protesters blocked traffic in downtown Seattle for six hours earlier in March. (SDOT)

Unwilling to do substantive debates in the media, the Seattle Police Department is making dubious legal claims to justify allowing a handful of unruly protesters snarl Downtown traffic for hours on March 2. And, while defending their actions, they contradicted their own arguments.

Sheriff: We would make arrests if protesters blocked streets

At a community meeting last week, Interim Police Chief Carmen Best explained that the protesters had a right to protest in that manner.

“Ideally, we would love for people to get permits, and that process is there,” she said. “But, you know, they’re not required to … I’m just telling you what the courts have said… We assist people in their personal right to free speech. We swore to do that, actually … And nowhere in there does it say, ‘First Amendment right to free speech, except if it’s inconvenient … except if there’s a permit.’ That is just not the way it works.”

Nowhere in the First Amendment does it say you can’t defame people or use speech to incite immediate violence, yet the courts have ruled that kind of speech is impermissible. Best’s legal arguments are specious. I am a fan of hers and want her to be the next police chief, but on this issue, she’s just wrong. In fact, she contradicted herself shortly after these comments were made.

“But as far as I’m concerned, at the end of the day … yes, people were inconvenienced, but nobody was arrested; nobody got hurt,” she said. “We cleared everybody off of Fifth Avenue. We made it known that if they’re not gone by three o’clock, you’re going to jail because, in fact, we can’t block off 5th Avenue in Friday rush hour.”

Why would they go to jail if they didn’t need permits and had the absolute right to inconvenience folks with their protest? This is a direct contradiction to an earlier statement. This part of her argument is actually why her original one is so wrong.

Despite Best’s earlier claims, the City of Seattle could place reasonable restrictions on where, when and how protests unfold. Time, place, and manner restrictions are permissible, though they cannot be content-based. Meaning, it’s reasonable to make arrests — or ask the protesters to move to sidewalks — when their permit-less protests occur in the middle of a busy intersection during a morning commute.

You cannot, however, remove them because you disagreed with their ridiculous message on a youth jail. And there was hardly a breaking current news event that sparked this particular protest, which means they have even less of a claim to do what they did. This legal principle is precisely why, at 3 p.m., Best claims she would have made arrests.

And this isn’t just the legal musings of a talk show host; they’re in alignment with the ACLU of Washington.

I’m a believer in more speech, not less; given what I do for a living, I’ve taken an obvious interest in protecting my rights. But what happened on March 2 had nothing to do with free speech rights. Their message could have been delivered from the sidewalk. But they wanted to cause disruption as a means to push forward their point and knew that the City of Seattle would cower to them. This is what they do when they can’t win arguments and change people’s minds; it’s exactly why they love using the heckler’s veto. They’re as cowardly as the city is feckless.

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