Are these people in the zone? The First Amendment zone?
Are these people in the zone? The First Amendment zone? Amanda Lee

To address whatever is going to happen when Shell's Arctic drilling fleet arrives in Seattle's port—like, oh, the presence of an unusual number of environmentalist kayakers—the US Coast Guard will be establishing safety zones around Shell's vessels and a "First Amendment" area near Terminal 5.

When the Polar Pioneer drilling rig is towed to Seattle, activists will have to stay 100 yards away from the vessel when it's stationary, and 500 yards away when it's moving. A temporary restraining order established by a federal judge in Alaska mandates longer distances for Greenpeace—they have to stay 1,000 meters away from the vessels in transit.

Puget Sound sector commander Captain Joe Raymond also invited some environmental groups to come in on Monday and talk about safety and upcoming protests. "Working with them, we have found a location just to the north of T-5 that will be a great place for people to express their First Amendment rights," he told reporters on Tuesday morning. "They'll be able to safely launch their kayaks from nearby ramps, be able to be seen, to be heard, but to be able to stay out of the traffic lanes."

A constitutional right to freedom of expression will now be particularly salient in a small part of Elliott Bay. (Everywhere else is lava?!) Got signs? Come on down! Got opinions? Come on down! Got kayaking skills? Come on down!

The strategy is not a new one. Free speech zones were first applied to abortion protesters at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. You may also remember when the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild sued over a notable "free speech zone" established at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. There, protesters could express their opinions freely in a chain link pen topped by razor wire. (Everywhere else was lava!) The case didn't succeed, and since then, "free speech zones" ("ever-Orwellian," as Natasha Lennard once described them) have continued as something of a trend at major events. Even Lindsay Bluth showed up in one!

It's slightly unclear how the Coast Guard's First Amendment area, which will not be marked by buoys, came to be. Raymond said the idea came out of the meeting with Greenpeace, 350 Seattle, the Washington Environmental Council, Climate Solutions, the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and the Mosquito Fleet on Monday. The Coast Guard did not choose the location, Raymond said. Still, representatives from Greenpeace and 350 Seattle also said they did not sign off on a special First Amendment area.

Either way, no one's really fighting that the designated area will soon exist. Expressing yourself in it is purely voluntary, so it's not breaking the rules if you paddle away and start shouting truther conspiracy theories in a different part of Puget Sound.

An approximation of where the First Amendment area will be. Its not yet final, but Captain Raymond circled his finger in this area on a map on Tuesday.
An approximation of where the First Amendment area will be. It's not yet final, but Captain Raymond circled his finger in this area on a map on Tuesday. US Coast Guard/The Stranger

The Shell complaint lodged against Greenpeace that resulted in the temporary restraining order will also be something to keep an eye on. In addition to naming Greenpeace as a defendant, the suit also highlights 20 unidentified people "acting in concert" with Greenpeace. Who could those be? The next hearing is April 28.

As we reported yesterday, the Polar Pioneer shouldn't be in Seattle for at least two weeks. When asked when we might expect the Noble Discoverer, the other big drilling vessel, Raymond said that the date isn't confirmed, but mid-May is an estimate. The Noble Discoverer is still near Hawaii, so that's a long ways off.

Raymond added that it's his hope none of this has to result in arrests. But sometimes getting arrested is the goal of certain protests, as demonstrated by Flood Wall Street in New York City last year.

The Coast Guard also reiterated the necessity of safety. Raymond said he was encouraged by the kayak trainings activists were having, but warned about frigid water at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and unpredictable weather. Just this past weekend, two people died and one was left in critical condition after a kayaking trip met a squall in Dungeness Bay.

This post has been updated.