VFP-ACLU 1st Amendment Victory in Seattle
Posted: 01 August 2011
Revised: 24 October 2011
Last year three members of the Palestine Action Team of Veterans For Peace, Greater Seattle, Chapter 92 had their 1st Amendment rights violated while trying to educate members of the public about the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty (AGTR-5). The excerpt below from a letter sent by staff attorney Rose Spidell of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to the Port of Seattle Police Department tells the story:
As we understand the facts, on August 7, 2010, during Fleet Week, part of the annual Seafair events, Michelle Kinnucan, together with Phil Heft and Mike Kearney, was attempting to display a banner and distribute leaflets in the pier-level public plaza of the Bell Street Pier/Pier 66, adjacent to the Maritime Event Center and Anthony's restaurant. Ms. Kinnucan, Mr. Heft, and Mr. Kearney are honorably-discharged US military veterans and they were acting that day as members of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP). The banner was designed specifically to avoid taking up lateral space, and Ms. Kinnucan and Mr. Kearney were near the wall of a building, purposely staying clear of pedestrian traffic. As Ms. Kinnucan and Mr. Kearney were assembling the banner in the public plaza they were approached by a uniformed Port of Seattle police officer, Clement Jimenez. Ms. Kinnucan reports, Officer Jimenez informed them that they were on private property and could not display the banner without a permit. Ms. Kinnucan expressed her belief that the Port of Seattle was a public agency and its property was in the public domain and that their activities there were protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, Officer Clement insisted that they move the banner out of the public plaza, Ms. Kinnucan and Mr. Kearney then moved from Port of Seattle property to the sidewalk along Alaskan Way.
While Mr. Kearney held the banner near the street, Ms. Kinnucan and Mr. Heft returned to the Pier 66 public plaza to distribute leaflets to members of the public who were in line waiting to tour the USS Kidd. Officer Jimenez returned, accompanied by a man in civilian attire who refused to identify himself, and told Ms. Kinnucan and Mr. Heft that they were not permitted to pass out leaflets on Port of Seattle property. Not prepared to risk citation or arrest, Ms. Kinnucan and Mr. Heft again left Port of Seattle [property] and returned to the sidewalk along Alaskan Way.
With the help of the ACLU, a small but important civil liberties victory was achieved in this matter. While VFP never received an apology and there is no evidence that Officer Jimenez was ever disciplined for his behavior, the Port of Seattle Police Department did issue a training bulletin in June that completely vindicates the three veterans and the ACLU. The bulletin states:
The United States and Washington state Constitutions protect the right to free speech. The protection extends to expression and communication of all sorts, including picketing, leafleting, marching and signature gathering. The plaza at Pier 66 is public property and specifically identified by the Port as a public access site. ... A permit is not required for leafleting. ... Nor is a permit required for picketing. ... Officers responding to a complaint related to a protest, picketing or leafleting should not take any enforcement action absent a complaint of criminal activity [emphasis in original].
It should be noted that the training bulletin describes a hypothetical scenario involving heckling and an angry confrontation. In the actual incident last year there were no confrontations with members of the public and the police records obtained by the ACLU give no indication that anyone ever complained about the activities of the three Veterans For Peace.
- Click here to read the ACLU letter to the Port of Seattle Police Department.
- Click here to read the Port of Seattle Police Department's training bulletin.
- See also: "Report: Veterans For Peace Remember the USS Liberty at Seattle's Seafair Fleet Week".