SEATTLE CENTER DEPUTY DIRECTOR ROBERT Nellams made a tough phone call to local civil rights attorney David Osgood late in the evening on Friday July 16, admitting that his department had screwed up. The phone call saved the city from major embarrassment, and more importantly, a trip to federal court.

Exactly a week earlier, on July 9, Seattle Center officials banished Tim Crowley -- who's pushing I-46, an initiative to repeal Seattle's poster ban -- from the 74-acre property. Seattle Center security claimed Crowley had violated park guidelines by displaying an anti-poster-ban sign [see "Cops Ban Poster Guy," In Other News, July 15]. He was told to stay out for a year.

Nellams' apologetic phone call came only five hours after Osgood, Crowley's pro-bono legal counsel, had fired off a letter to Seattle Center saying that unless the banishment was lifted and Seattle Center sent a written apology, they'd be seeing each other in federal court. "They simply had no rule to banish someone from that park," Osgood says. "I think they need to take a serious look at how they're regulating speech there."

Booting Crowley from Seattle Center raised a number of questions about what rights citizens have on the grounds. It was only because Crowley was willing to fight back that the public agency had to confront those questions and back off from setting a troubling precedent.

Crowley had come to Seattle Center that evening to work the crowd at a free outdoor music show. With little more than a month left to gather the 12,000 additional signatures needed to send the matter to city hall, Crowley and his allies have some serious work to do.

While working the crowd for signatures, Crowley took a "Yes on I-46" sign and placed it in a tree near stage left of the Mural Amphitheater. Two people wearing shirts that read "staff" approached him and told him he had to take the sign down. He asked why. They said it was against the rules. "What rules?" he asked.

They didn't answer. A third staffer showed up and informed Crowley that people have to pay to display signs at Seattle Center. He ordered Crowley to take his sign down, and Crowley refused. The staffer then took the sign down himself, and Crowley ripped it out of his hands.

The police -- who operate a cop shop on Seattle Center grounds -- responded immediately, confiscating the campaign sign and ordering Crowley to come with them. The cop in charge, Sergeant Ron Wilson, told Crowley he was "out of control," and had better do what he was told. Wilson and two other cops escorted Crowley back to their office, where they filled out a card with his name, address, and date of birth, and informed him that he couldn't return to Seattle Center for a year. Crowley asked for a copy of the card, but the police refused.

John Tirpak, an attorney who is involved in the I-46 campaign, witnessed the exchange. "The police came into the situation as though they were this little private security force for Seattle Center," says Tirpak. "It was the first time I'd ever witnessed police acting as judge, jury, and executioner."

Seattle Center, which isn't officially a park even though it siphons nearly $7 million a year from the city's general budget, operates under its own set of rules and regulations regarding "speech activities." And yes, one of its rules states that "There shall be no posting of signs, literature, notices or the like on the Seattle Center premises."

Beau Fong, the public relations specialist for Seattle Center, says, "We're not trying to interfere with anybody's free speech, but people have to be willing to honor and respect the rules."

Crowley was kicked out under a "trespass admonishment" policy similar to what department stores use against shoplifters on their private property.

Council member Nick Licata, the chair of the city council's Culture, Arts, and Parks Committee, which oversees Seattle Center, says he is uncomfortable with the center restricting political activity on its grounds. "I don't think it serves the public interest," says Licata. "I don't think that we should extend that shopping-mall mentality to the Seattle Center."

Fong insists that Crowley was banished not because of his political speech, but because of his reaction to the staffers at the event. "He became agitated and belligerent," says Fong (who did not witness the exchange). "The [staffers] were getting nervous because of his behavior. He was out of control.... You can't have people knowingly refusing to do something."

Crowley acknowledges that he was upset, but says, "The reason this whole thing happened was because I had the nerve to defy the guy. Which is exactly why I did it, because most people do what they're told and that's how we end up with these stupid laws."

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