Man files lawsuit against city about free speech at Salmon Days
August 9, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
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.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.