Category Archives: First Amendment

Criminalizing “Illegal Protests”

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The Bellingham Herald reported that Senator Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, a Republican state senator who campaigned for President-elect Donald Trump, wants to propose a bill that criminalizes what he calls “illegal protests.”

In short, his bill would create a new crime of “economic terrorism” and would allow felony prosecution of people involved in protests that block transportation and commerce, damage property, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk.

Erickson said his bill also would apply to people who fund and organize such protests. “We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism,” Ericksen said. “We are going after the people who fund them.”

American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spokesman Doug Honig told The Associated Press Wednesday that while they’ll need to see an actual bill, Ericksen’s statement throws out a lot of broad rhetoric. Honig said the following:

“We’re already concerned that some of its loose terms appear to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ That’s the kind of excessive approach to peaceful protest that our country and state do not need. Let’s keep in mind that civil rights protesters who sat down at lunch counters could be seen as ‘disrupting business’ “and ‘obstructing economic activity,’ and their courageous actions were opposed by segregationists as trying to ‘coerce’ business and government.”

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My opinion? Yes, protest is ugly. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. And it’s American. Fundamentally American. As in, First Amendment American. It’s no secret that the First Amendment plays a large role in enabling robust public political discussion. In particular, expressive freedom can help to generate dynamic political change.

True, there are exceptions to the general protections to the First Amendment; including the Miller test for obscenity, child pornography laws, speech that incites imminent lawless action, and regulation of commercial speech such as advertising.

Despite the exceptions, however, the legal protections of the First Amendment are some of the broadest of any industrialized nation, and remain a critical, and occasionally controversial, component of American jurisprudence.

Erickson’s “economic terrorism” bill is problematic. It attempts to solve little more than a perceived threat and ultimately criminalizes liberty. If proposed and passed through the GOP-controlled Senate, it would likely would face serious obstacles in the current Democratic-controlled House. Even if the bill is passed and made into statute, it would immediately face constitutional challenges as being overly broad and/or facially invalid as applied.

Please contact my office if your friends or family are charged with crimes related to the exercise of their rights to publicly protest. I’m honored to represent clients who face criminal charges for essentially exercising their First Amendment rights. These prosecutions should be dismissed, debunked and exposed.

Panhandling is Free Speech

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 In  City of Lakewood v. Willis, the WA Supreme Court held that a Lakewood Municipal Ordinance that prohibited begging near highways and intersections of major highways violated the First Amendment.
Mr. Willis was standing near an exit ramp from I-5 in Lakewood and holding a sign saying he was disabled and needed help.  An officer cited Mr. Willis for “Aggressive Begging,” a crime under Lakewood Municipal Code (LMC) 9A.04.020A.
At trial, the jury found Mr. Willis guilty. The municipal court sentenced him to 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, with 90 days and $750 suspended. The court also assessed $125 in costs. Mr. Willis appealed, raising several constitutional challenges to the statute.
On appeal, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that although the government can impose certain restrictions on speech in a public forum, such as reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions; it cannot impose restrictions based on content. Consequently, Willis may challenge the ordinance as facially overbroad regardless of his conduct. “Because both provisions impose a content-based speech restriction in a substantial number of traditional public forums, Willis’ facial challenge succeeds. Thus, his conviction must be reversed.”
My opinion? This is a great decision, and should be helpful to defense attorneys in other municipalities with ordinances that limit and outlaw panhandling.  Sure, aggressive panhandling from the homeless is annoying. However, it should not be criminalized. It wastes taxpayer money to incarcerate the homeless on these charges. Next thing you know, the Girl Scouts of America will be jailed for selling cookies at your grocery store.
Big congratulations to attorney David Ionnotti, who represented Mr. Willis.  The ACLU and Washington Defender Association filed one amicus brief in the case, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness filed another.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.