Judge rules against Salmon Days ‘expression areas’
September 27, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
NEW — 3:45 p.m. Sept. 27, 2011
City and Salmon Days Festival officials cannot prevent a man from distributing religious literature at the festival, a federal judge decided as she ruled against the event’s “expression areas.”
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle last month, Snoqualmie resident Paul Ascherl said Issaquah police officers threatened to arrest him for handing out Christian literature in places outside the pair of downtown “expression areas” on festival grounds last year. Ascherl relocated to the “expression areas” after police and a festival official intervened.
In a Sept. 21 ruling, Judge Marsha J. Pechman said the “safety and congestion concerns” related to the Salmon Days leafletting ban “are likely speculative,” and issued a preliminary injunction to prevent city and festival officials from stopping Ascherl if he distributes leaflets at the upcoming festival.
Salmon Days returns to Issaquah on Saturday and Sunday.
Issaquah officials created a city ordinance — No. 5.40.040 in Issaquah Municipal Code — 11 years ago to address concerns about public safety as festival attendance climbed. In addition to banning leafleting in most areas at Salmon Days, the municipal ordinance also prohibits protests, unscheduled entertainment or nonprofit activities outside of booths and designated areas. Officials also raised concerns about leaflets leading to additional litter.
The city allows people to dress up in animal costumes, carry large signs, purchase and eat food, and perform music on its downtown sidewalks and streets,” Pechman wrote. “All of these activities are more likely to cause congestion than allowing Ascherl and others to distribute literature.”
Salmon Days organizers direct people distributing leaflets, political candidates and other unscheduled activities to a pair of “expression areas” near downtown festival entrances.
“By banning leafleting and permitting other more congestive activities, the court finds IMC 5.40.040 is not narrowly tailored to serve a substantial government interest,” Pechman wrote.
Pechman also denied the city’s request for more time to file a brief in response to Ascherl’s legal challenge.
“While the public interest in maintaining a free exchange of ideas has in some cases been overcome by a strong showing of other competing public interests (for example, the safety and security of a nuclear testing site), no such showing is made here,” Pechman wrote.
Attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., represented Ascherl in federal court.
“Christians shouldn’t be threatened with arrest and quarantined in isolated ‘expression areas’ when they want to share their beliefs,” Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Nate Kellum said in a statement. “The federal judge did the right thing by halting the enforcement of a city ordinance that effectively censors anyone who wishes 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.”