In the aftermath of the February 28 debacle, Mayor Paul Schell convened several task forces to study the tragedy as a way to prevent future disasters on our streets. Unfortunately, the results may be a bit tragic themselves.
One of the panels, the Special Events Task Force, revisited city laws that govern the permitting of special events. On August 15, after Mayor Paul Schell seconded the task force's recommendations, the city council's public safety committee took up proposed amendments regarding city code and special events. Council chambers were packed with a wary public, including several folks from the music community who were concerned that the proposals went too far, icing First Amendment rights ["Bad Advice," Josh Feit, July 19].
Luckily, civil-rights attorney David Osgood was on hand. Osgood testified that tragedy often inspires reactionary, deeply flawed law.
The city would be wise to listen to Osgood. Practically a one-man ACLU who has made a cottage industry of whipping the city in court, Osgood has successfully defended beleaguered African American Seattle clubs, leading the state Court of Appeals to strike down the state's "added activity" ordinance as unconstitutional. Osgood is currently battling the city in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of the Teen Dance Ordinance.
We asked the civil-rights avenger to summarize his concerns about the special events proposals.--Eds.
Tragedy often makes for bad law. Add in a dose of election-season politics and you've got a recipe for disaster. On the heels of the Mardi Gras task force reports, Mayor Schell's office is attempting to put a new ordinance through the Seattle City Council. Council Bill 113801, known as the "Special Events Ordinance," is the definition of bad law. If passed, the Special Events Ordinance may smother a wide variety of community-building events, chill free speech and expression, and burden us with an unnecessary and unconstitutional layer of bureaucratic process. Concertgoers and sports fans alike will suffer while the root causes of the Mardi Gras violence continue to go unaddressed.
The state and federal constitutions set restrictions on the use of governmental power and establish the minimum standards that good law must meet. To meet those standards, laws must be clear, narrowly tailored to the task at hand, and, in the present case, not unreasonably interfere with the exercise of free speech. Any law that authorizes a bureaucrat to pick and choose who can and cannot engage in free expression is almost always unconstitutional.
An ordinance that is so unclear that one must guess at its meaning, especially when free speech is at stake, is void for vagueness under the due process clause of the Constitution. Council 113801 is a textbook example of a vague law. Under the ordinance currently proposed, any activity that may be expected to "have a substantial impact on a park or other public place" and "require substantial public services" may be considered a "Special Event," requiring government approval through an intensive permitting process. This may include any event that requires its patrons to enter or exit on a public sidewalk or street, such as Mariners, Seahawks, Sonics, and Huskies games; Seattle Symphony concerts; Paramount or Fifth Avenue Theater productions; high-school proms; or any normal business activity of a bar or nightclub, should it attract the ire of the powers that be. Given Seattle's history of selective enforcement of its laws against disfavored businesses, it's certainly not a stretch to suggest that this ordinance may be used to target politically unpopular events or venues. Being classified as a special event brings one under a new licensing scheme that, among other things, requires the sponsor to purchase insurance for the city of Seattle, even if the event is contained within private property. Even if the city does not plan to enforce the ordinance this narrowly, the broad authority given the Special Events Committee to decide when a permit is required (and the burdens that could potentially be imposed) is constitutionally repugnant.
An ordinance cannot condition the exercise of free speech upon the prior approval of government officials. Without basic safeguards, such an ordinance is tantamount to censorship. Unfortunately, the proposed ordinance, which grants the Special Events Committee carte blanche to deny permits based on arbitrary considerations (such as the risk of traffic disruption), flies in the face of existing case law that has already struck down similar ordinances. In legalese, this concept is knows as a "prior restraint" on free speech. Indeed, with this in mind, the city council tabled City Attorney Mark Sidran's "added activity" ordinance two years ago.
The Special Events Ordinance is currently before the city council's public safety committee, where it's being pitched as "better than the existing ordinance." And, in fairness, it does attempt to address some of the flaws of current law. But the fact that the laws we have now are deficient does not excuse a "fix" that will undermine community events and ultimately fail judicial challenge.
What happened during Mardi Gras was tragic, but it is chicanery to suggest that any sort of a permit could have prevented it. The proposed Special Events Ordinance is a half-baked, politically expedient response that ignores the root causes of violence in this city, sidesteps discussion of youth, race, and police authority, chips away at the rights of our citizenry, and endangers civic discourse by creating a complicated, overreaching, and needlessly bureaucratic process.