Salmon Days free-speech rules prompt lawsuit against city

August 8, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 4 p.m. Aug. 8, 2011

The iconic Salmon Days Festival is at the center of a free-speech lawsuit after police threatened to arrest a man for distributing religious leaflets at the festival last year.

Snoqualmie resident Paul Ascherl sued the city in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Aug. 5 to challenge a municipal ordinance created to limit leafleting and other activities to designated “expression areas” at the fall festival.

Ascherl said Issaquah police officers threatened to arrest him for handing out Christian literature in places outside the pair of downtown “expression areas” on the festival grounds.

The city ordinance, crafted in 2000, prohibits leafleting, protests, unscheduled entertainment or nonprofit activities outside of booths and designated areas. The ordinance also sets rules for festivalgoers’ signs and bans megaphones on festival grounds. The city considers violations as misdemeanors punishable by fines and possible imprisonment.

City Attorney Wayne Tanaka said the city developed the ordinance “in response to concerns, frankly, about crowd control and public safety” at the festival. Salmon Days attracted more than 180,000 people to downtown Issaquah last year.

“We’re very aware of First Amendment rights and are very cognizant to not trample on them,” Tanaka said.

Ascherl is seeking a court order declaring the ordinance unconstitutional, plus “nominal damages” and compensation for legal fees.

“When I express my beliefs, I don’t demonstrate. I don’t seek to draw a crowd. I don’t ask for money. I don’t try to gather signatures,” he stated in court documents. “I only want to pass out tracts.”

The incident attracted attention from the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Christians shouldn’t be threatened with arrest and censored by being quarantined to isolated ‘expression areas’ when they want to share their beliefs,” Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Nate Kellum said in a statement. “The city ordinance mandating the zones effectively censors anyone wishing to express his or her beliefs through the distribution of literature. That violates the constitutionally protected right to free speech in public areas at a free event that’s open to everyone.”

Organizer orders stop to leafleting

The festival’s “expression areas” frequently serve as a place for political parties and candidates for elected office to set up booths and meet potential supporters.

Organizers set up the zones near festival entrances at West Sunset Way and Front Street South for the 2010 event. The areas originated more than a decade ago as city leaders updated rules for Salmon Days activities.

“In any given year, there are people who come who aren’t familiar with them or don’t find them, whatever the case is,” said Robin Kelley, festivals director at the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce and the chief Salmon Days organizer. “We’re always addressing it with someone each year, not as a problem, per se, but just letting them know where they are.”

During Salmon Days, Ascherl started distributing leaflets near the intersection of Front Street North and Northeast Dogwood Street and stopped occasionally to talk to festivalgoers for about five minutes, court documents state.

Then, a female Salmon Days official approached and ordered him to stop, court documents state. Ascherl said he had a constitutional right to distribute leaflets on public sidewalks. The official again ordered him to halt, the documents continue.

Issaquah police officers approached Ascherl about 30 minutes later and asked about the leaflets.

“The officers wanted to make sure that I was not harassing anyone or pushing my literature on anyone,” he stated in court documents. “I assured them that I would not do that, and they allowed me to continue.”

Organizers: Other options exist

The officers soon returned, accompanied by the female Salmon Days official. Ascherl reminded the group about the constitutional right to distribute literature, and asked to see a copy of the city ordinance outlining public expression during Salmon Days.

The officers and the female Salmon Days official returned 20 minutes later to show Ascherl the ordinance, and said he could be arrested if he did not relocate to one of the “expression areas” elsewhere on the festival grounds, court documents continue.

Ascherl headed to the zone near a performance stage along Front Street South, but said noise from performers prevented normal conversation.

Then, he moved to the other “expression area” along West Sunset Way, but “I soon realized that literature distribution in the second free speech zone was likewise useless,” he stated in court documents. “Very few people came near the second free speech zone.”

Kelley said alternatives exist to the “expression areas” outlined in the city ordinance. In the past, she said, political candidates and groups used other methods to circumvent the rule and obey the ordinance.

“They can walk through in T-shirts or sandwich boards — there are a lots of things that they can do on the street. There’s no problem with that at all,” she added. “But if they want to stop and stand and talk to people, then that’s when we ask — if they don’t have a booth — for them to use one of the expression areas.”

Salmon Days receives financial and logistical support from the city, and requires a municipal permit to operate.

“We’re sorry that what happened happened, but it appears that from what little I know that plaintiff is simply not willing to try to accommodate things and is just insisting that he has a right to pass out literature anytime he wants,” Tanaka said.

Kelley said Salmon Days organizers educate volunteers at information booths about the expression zones.

“It’s too bad, because we work with so many nonprofits and really try to make sure that everyone has a chance to be present and be involved,” she said.

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Comments

10 Responses to “Salmon Days free-speech rules prompt lawsuit against city”

  1. Marvin Torgeson on August 8th, 2011 5:09 pm

    “We’re sorry that what happened happened, but it appears that from what little I know that plaintiff is simply not willing to try to accommodate things and is just insisting that he has a right to pass out literature anytime he wants,” Tanaka said

    Well Sir, he really does have the right to pass out literature anytime he wants.

    Just so you understand, how would you like it if I decided to limit your constitutional rights according to my own whims underneath the veil of City ordinance? But passing out literature may not be your way of expression, so, lets find out what is and limit it so that those in authority may have their personal agenda satisfied.

    I bet the Salmon days crew will make room for any agenda that suits their liking
    and the police will make sure its allowed. Individuals have rights, in this country while it still has some semblance of constitutional rule he can chose Salmon days, he can talk to whoever he wants and he can speak his mind on whatever topic he choses.

    Maybe Issaquah should put up a sign underneath their Salmon days banner that reads “your constitutional rights are forfeit here” Freedom is only a word to this city, not an actual reality. We arrest anyone violating the cities right to suspend a citizens constitutional rights.

  2. Blogs From the NARN Board » Blog Archive » News of Note on August 8th, 2011 5:50 pm

    […] Salmon Days free-speech rules prompt lawsuit against city The iconic Salmon Days Festival is at the center of a free-speech lawsuit after police threatened to arrest a man for distributing religious leaflets at the festival.  Snoqualmie resident Paul Ascherl sued the city in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Aug. 5 to challenge a municipal ordinance created to limit leafleting and other activities to designated “expression areas” at the fall festival. […]

  3. steve on August 8th, 2011 6:14 pm

    The City of Issaquah should familiarize themselves with the law of the land or face the consequences. Namely 42 USC 1983.

    § 1983. Civil action for deprivation of rights

    Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.

  4. matt on August 8th, 2011 6:56 pm

    “Well Sir, he really does have the right to pass out literature anytime he wants.”

    Hogwash. The government can most certainly restrict freedom of speech. They’re called time, place, and manner restrictions:

    “Nevertheless, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment is not absolute. It has never been interpreted to guarantee all forms of speech without any restraint whatsoever. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that state and federal governments may place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of individual expression. Time, place, and manner (TPM) restrictions accommodate public convenience and promote order by regulating traffic flow, preserving property interests, conserving the environment, and protecting the administration of justice. The Supreme Court has developed a four-part analysis to evaluate the constitutionality of TPM restrictions. To pass muster under the First Amendment, TPM restrictions must be content neutral, be narrowly drawn, serve a significant government interest, and leave open alternative channels of communication.”

    http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Time,%20Place,%20and%20Manner%20Restrictions

    Thus, some restrictions are constitutional. Whether the City’s restrictions are constitutional remains to be seen.

  5. Dan on August 8th, 2011 7:16 pm

    “Christians shouldn’t be threatened with arrest and censored by being quarantined to isolated ‘expression areas’ when they want to share their beliefs,” – Really? No where in the story did the city or even the plaintiff claim the issue had anything to do with religon. Really? The attorney is already playing the “religon card”.

    It seems to me that the actions by the city the event organizers and the police were very reasonable. This is simply another example of a stupid lawsuit in which my tax dollars will have to be used to deffend against.

  6. exoticdoc2 on August 8th, 2011 7:49 pm

    A piddly little city ordinance cannot supersede US free speech laws. It sounds as though a little government bureaucrat wanted to try to demonstrate her self-proclaimed importance and push someone around. Fire her.

  7. nwgal on August 8th, 2011 9:40 pm

    Some people just don’t understand the 1st Amendment. It’s not God’s law, and, yes, it can and has been lawfully restricted.
    The Salmon Days folks were well within their rights to try to balance the desire for people to promote their political and religious agendas and the rights of festival goers who don’t want to be harassed.
    This guy, by assuming rights he doesn’t have, is just going to waste more taxpayers’ money in a trial that he’s very likely to lose; and that’s just a shame.

  8. Skip Driver on August 9th, 2011 9:45 am

    So does this mean if the LDS missionaries happen to be there eating lunch at Salmon Days and they give someone a King James Bible and a Book of Mormom they would be arrested. I think that the police would not want 14million LDS people upset with them. Let alone God.
    Shame on them.

    Businesses set out their signs in front of their stores and sign holders wave their signs are they arrested no because it brings money to the city.

  9. Steve on August 9th, 2011 10:27 am

    I’m all for free speech, but it’s not appropriate to enable special interest groups to stall the flow of pedestrian traffic with their solicitations anywhere they want at a major event. Like a library, movie theater, etc., this is a situation that doesn’t work without some rules and order.

  10. Jack on August 9th, 2011 5:36 pm

    This old crank is probably the same type of Teabagger who complains about unnecessary lawsuits holding up our courts.

    To all you imbeciles who state that you have the right to free speech…to hand out your religious leaflets on the 520 bridge! Let’s see how long that lasts? Oh, are you going to complain that their trampling on your Constitutional rights?

    you’ve stayed out of politics for the last 50 years, please continue to do so…you’re just getting caught in the weeds and mudding up any change of progress.

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