The threat of a lawsuit shouldn’t be necessary to remind government officials of 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 the lawsuits started to fly.
A group called “CHOP Art” wanted to get together in Cal Anderson Park and celebrate the takeover of a few blocks of Capitol Hill last year. This protest persisted for weeks after Seattle Police abandoned the East Precinct building. It featured social justice messages, calls to cut police funding and shift money to programs and services for communities of color, and was a hot topic on national cable news channels. . There was violence, two people were killed and the demonstrators severely disrupted local affairs and the neighborhood. The event is now part of a brewing scandal over the mayor’s missing text messages.
Unlike the original event organized by Capitol Hill, CHOP Art applied for a permit from the city to host their event. He planned to have stalls, music, speakers, and art. In other words, it would be like many other weekend festivals that pop up in the city during the warmer months.
Yet parks and recreation officials did not approve the permit, even after CHOP Art amended its request to include a celebration of June 10, a public holiday that marks the day the last enslaved African Americans learned that ‘they were free in 1865.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sent a letter to the city denouncing the denial and threatening legal action. The letter alleged that the subject of the event was one of the main reasons the permit was not issued. Perhaps the city feared it was supporting a controversial event or that protesters might show up.
The First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly prevent the government from making these kinds of content-based decisions. CHOP Art has as much a right to organize a peaceful event as any other group, whether it is a local ethnic celebration, Black Lives Matter or the Proud Boys. The message, even one the city finds obnoxious, may not guide the decision to deny a permit. Likewise, groups that municipal authorities support may not receive preferential treatment.
Parks and Recreation cautiously backed off after the ACLU-WA reported the constitutional error. Even so, some catch-up training between government and free speech appears to be behind schedule in the city.
The good news for all concerned is that CHOP Art and its supporters held their event this 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 freedom of expression prevailed.