The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Public Defender Association are threatening legal action against the city of Seattle for denying a permit to a group called “CHOP Art,” which had planned a celebration this weekend of Juneteenth and last year’s takeover of parts of Capitol Hill by racial justice protesters.
In a letter sent to city officials Thursday, lawyers from the ACLU-WA and defender’s association claim the decision by officials at Seattle Parks and Recreation is unconstitutional. They said the permit denial amounts to government censorship and prior-restraint of free speech, in violation of the First Amendment.
“We understand that the event was intended to celebrate the freedom of Black Americans and to include music, booths, speakers and other forms of art, but that CHOP Art’s permit application was denied because of the content of the event,” wrote ACLU-WA lawyer Lisa Nowlin and the defender’s association’s Prachi Dave. “As the City is well aware, the First Amendment prohibits government restriction of speech based on the content of that speech.”
The ACLU-WA letter urges the city to issue the permit by Friday or “we may need to take emergency legal action.”
According to the letter, CHOP Art initially intended to hold a celebration Friday and Saturday at Cal Anderson Park to celebrate the takeover of that portion of Capitol Hill by protesters after Seattle police abandoned the nearby East Precinct last June. The letter claims the city denied the initial application, citing “the celebration or commemoration of last year’s protest activity” as a “significant reason” why the permit was not granted.
Messages left Thursday afternoon with representatives of Seattle Parks and Recreation were not returned. The office of City Attorney Pete Holmes, who also received a copy of the letter, referred questions to Parks and Recreation, stating that any advice the city attorney may have provided to the department would be protected by attorney-client privilege.
CHOP Art — described as a nonprofit organization that “supports social justice through art, self-expression and education” — reportedly attempted to work with Parks and Recreation to resolve their concerns. They revised the event to include a celebration of Juneteenth, a recently added state holiday celebrating June 19 as the day the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, officially learned they were free following the end of the Civil War. The city declined to change its mind, according to the letter.
In a response, quoted in the letter, Park and Recreation officials wrote they “recognize your efforts to rebrand the event to a Juneteenth event, however we do not feel that the revised event substantially differs from the original, and we have concerns that the public could still view it as a celebration or commemoration of last year’s protest activity.”
The city has reason to not want a repeat of last year’s protests.
CHOP, an acronym for the “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” zone, was formed on June 8 during raucous protests calling for racial justice and an end to police violence following the May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Seattle police abandoned the East Precinct on Capitol Hill and left the streets to protesters and community activists, who quickly set up a tent city, some social services, and a community garden at Cal Anderson Park. Over the next two weeks, thousands visited the police-free zone. It also was the site of violence, including the deaths of two teenagers, and spurred complaints — and eventually lawsuits — from business owners impacted by the city’s decision to abandon the neighborhood.
The city’s approach to the CHOP thrust Seattle onto the national stage during the early days of the national George Floyd protests, with then-President Donald Trump demanding on Twitter that Mayor Jenny Durkan and Gov. Jay Inslee take back the streets from the “filthy anarchists.”
The ACLU letter says the city’s concerns over what might happen at a CHOP commemoration or how it might be perceived amounts to a “heckler’s veto,” referring to when a government suppresses speech out of concern over the reaction it might bring.
“The concerns of how community members may experience or react to someone’s speech are not a legitimate basis on which the government may curtail speech,” the letter says. “By relying on public concern … [Seattle Parks and Recreation] has engaged in an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.”