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Ninth Circuit rules Seattle parade law unconstitutional

[JURIST] A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 2-1 Friday that Seattle's parade law is unconstitutional. The court was asked to decide whether the Seattle Municipal Ordinance [text] violates the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment [text] by granting a city licensing official unduly broad discretion. Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the majority:

The Parade Ordinance’s open-ended standard, combined with the absence of a requirement that officials articulate their reasons or an administrative-judicial review process, vests the Seattle Chief of Police with sweeping authority to determine whether or not a parade may utilize the forum of the streets to broadcast its message. The First Amendment prohibits placing such unfettered discretion in the hands of licensing officials and renders the Parade Ordinance constitutionally defective on its face.
The case involved the Seattle affiliate of the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation [advocacy website] (“Coalition”), an unincorporated association dedicated to raising awareness of the problem of police brutality. The Coalition had applied for and received a parade permit from the Seattle Chief of Police and claimed that over the past few years these permits were subjected to conditions that the Coalition found objectionable. The Coalition argued that the Ordinance violated the First Amendment because it failed to provide sufficient guidance to the police on when they might require marchers to use the sidewalks and deny them access to the streets, thus creating an unacceptable risk that officers would arbitrarily modify certain groups’ permits by prohibiting them from marching in the streets based on the content of their speech.

Parade laws in a number of US cities have been successfully challenged by activists in recent years. In 2006, New York City Criminal Court Judge Gerald Harris ruled [opinion, PDF] that the City’s parade permit law was “hopelessly overbroad” and “constitutes a burden on free expression that is more than the First Amendment can bear.” In 2003, a federal court judge ordered the city of Pittsburgh [JURIST report] to revise its parade permit issuing ordinance after three civil rights organizations and the ACLU filed suit against the city alleging it discriminated against certain groups when issuing parade permits. In 2001, Honolulu amended its parade permit system [ACLU press release] to avoid a similar ACLU suit.

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