The threat of a lawsuit shouldn’t be necessary to remind government officials about a little thing called the First Amendment. But the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department needed a refresher course last week. At least they came to their senses before lawsuits started flying.
A group called “CHOP Art” wanted to gather in Cal Anderson Park and celebrate last year’s takeover of a few blocks of Capitol Hill. That protest lingered for weeks after Seattle Police abandoned the East Precinct building. It featured social justice messaging, calls to slash police funding and shift the money to programs and services for communities of color, and was a favorite topic on national cable news channels. There was violence, two people were killed, and the protesters severely disrupted local business and the neighborhood. The event now is part of a brewing scandal over the mayor’s missing text messages.
Unlike that original Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP Art filed for a city permit to hold its event. It planned to have booths, music, speakers and art. In other words, it would be like many other weekend festivals that pop up around the city during warm months.
Yet Parks and Recreation officials didn’t approve the permit, even after CHOP Art amended its application to include a celebration of Juneteenth, a holiday that marks the day the last enslaved Africans Americans learned they were free in 1865.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sent a letter to the city decrying the denial and threatening a lawsuit. The letter alleged that the topic of the event was a core reason the permit had not been issued. Perhaps the city was worried about supporting a controversial event or that protesters might show up.
The First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and assembly prevent the government from making that sort of content-based decision. CHOP Art has as much right to hold a peaceful event as any other group, whether a local ethnic celebration, Black Lives Matter or the Proud Boys. The message, even one that the city finds odious, may not steer the decision to deny a permit. Likewise, groups that city officials happen to support may not receive preferential treatment.
Parks and Recreation prudently backed down after the ACLU-WA pointed out the constitutional error. Even so, some remedial government-versus-free-speech training seems overdue at the city.
The good news for all concerned is that CHOP Art and its supporters held their event over the weekend, and it appears to have gone off without serious disruption. It was a peaceful, respectful and joyful celebration of equality. It did not become CHOP2, and free speech prevailed.