Organizers of a rally last summer against the separation of immigrant families say the city of SeaTac is violating their First Amendment rights by charging them for “crowd control.” Now, the organizers are suing SeaTac in federal court.
Organizers of a protest against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies that drew around 10,000 people to the SeaTac Federal Detention Center last summer say that city is now trying to make them pay $37,000 for crowd control and other costs from the event — a charge they say threatens to chill free speech.
The coalition of groups that organized the rally, Families Belong Together — Washington, is suing the city of SeaTac in U.S. District Court, alleging the city’s policy violates the First Amendment.
“What they did sending an invoice for $37,000 to a small group of grassroots organizations, they’re sending us a message,” said Palmira Figueroa, one of the event organizers. “The message is, ‘Don’t come here. Don’t do your rallies here.’ ”
A complaint filed Dec. 21 names the city of SeaTac and Jeff Robinson, who was director of the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development, according to the complaint. The complaint asks a judge to stop SeaTac from charging for public-safety services at speech and assembly events like protests in city spaces and to block the city from taking any collection action for the $37,000.
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A spokesperson for SeaTac said the city could not comment on pending litigation.
In an email Friday, Robinson, who now works for the city of Tacoma, said he was “distressed and disheartened” to be named in the complaint, but was required by city code to seek reimbursement for the event costs.
“There was no intention on anyone’s part, to violate or suppress, then, or in the future, persons or group rights to lawfully demonstrate or utilize their rights to free speech,” Robinson wrote.
Families Belong Together — Washington included civil-rights, immigrant-rights, religious and labor groups. The coalition formed after the national Families Belong Together coalition called for a day of action to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the complaint. The local group held the June 30 rally outside the Federal Detention Center, where some immigrant parents were held while separated from their children.
One of the group’s members, Mohammed Kilani, applied for a city permit for the event on June 28 and the city granted it June 29. “At no time in the permitting process did anyone inform Mr. Kilani that he might be responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in police costs to ensure the safety of those seeking to engage in constitutionally protected speech,” the complaint said.
A few days after the event, on July 2, Kilani received an invoice for about $37,076, including about $30,847 for “crowd control — police services,” $5,810 for “crowd control — public works” and several hundred dollars for permit and technology fees, according to the complaint. In September, Kilani received a second notice stamped “past due,” the complaint said.
For an event where no one was arrested and organizers cleaned up afterward, the charges came as a surprise “especially [to] people on our team that have been organizers for many years,” Figueroa said. “This was a first for all of us.”
Even if organizers had been warned about the costs, that could have deterred them from holding the event, therefore restricting their free-speech rights, the complaint argues.
Billing protest organizers like SeaTac did in this case creates an “undue burden on the exercise of speech for anybody who’s not wealthy,” said Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, which is representing the protest organizers along with the firm Peterson Wampold Rosato Feldman Luna.
The University of Washington recently faced a similar claim after planning to charge the UW College Republicans security fees for an event held with Patriot Prayer. The UW settled that case, agreeing to pay $122,500 and not charge student organizations security fees for speakers unless the groups or speakers makes specific security requests. The settlement doesn’t stop the school from creating a “constitutionally permissible security fee.”
Information from the Seattle Times archives is included in this story.