(The Center Square) – A denied permit for an art exhibition commemorating the occupation of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood last summer could mean a court battle between the city and two legal giants.
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Public Defender Association wrote to the city officials demanding activist group, "CHOP Art" be allowed to put up artwork at a Juneteenth celebration this weekend.
Seattle's CHOP or Capitol Hill Organized Protest Zone was formed in July when a coalition of left-wing and racial justice activists took control of the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The phenomenon saw local law enforcement abandon the East Precinct until they forcibly cleared the area in July.
A 19-year-old man who was shot to death in the area, Horace Lorenzo Anderson, spurred two separate lawsuits filed by family members against city officials for allegedly failing to provide him assistance.
CHOP has a special place in history for activists like Mark Anthony who attended protests there every day until its demise. Anthony founded CHOP Art, a nonprofit for artists from underprivileged communities celebrating the remaining art pieces created in the protest zone. The group was denied a permit earlier this month to hold an exhibit at Cal Anderson Park on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of Black Americans enslaved in Texas on June 19, 1865.
Anthony says the Seattle Department of Park and Recreation (SPR) reached out to him to set up an art exhibit at Cal Anderson Park. According to Anthony, he worked with the department for about six to eight months before the project fell through and his park use permit and request for city funding was denied.
Anthony says he was contacted by the mayor's office some weeks later, saying his permit was denied out of concerns among some in the community that the event would draw violence.
"I basically asked the mayor how many concerned citizens it takes to take away my rights," Anthony said.
In a letter sent on Thursday, the ACLU of Washington and the Public Defenders Association argue the denial of CHOP Art's permit amounts to prior restraint of free speech, violating the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. ACLU-WA lawyer Lisa Nowlin and Prachi Dave of the Public Defender Association claim CHOP Art's written denial from the city was made to limit "more controversial views."
The two cite numerous court cases like Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz. and Police Department of Chicago v. Mosley, arguing that any content-based restriction on speech is "presumptively unconstitutional."
"We understand that the event was intended to celebrate the freedom of Black Americans and to include music, booths, speakers and other forms of art, but that CHOP Art's permit application was denied because of the content of the event," Nowlin and Dave wrote. "As the City is well aware, the First Amendment prohibits government restriction of speech based on the content of that speech."
Soon thereafter, Anthony says, the city informed him it would permit his exhibit as a First Amendment free speech event. He claims the mixup is the city giving him the runaround.
"I applied for a park use permit," Anthony said. "They're basically trying to make it sound as if I applied for the wrong permit, even though they're the ones that told me to fill out that specific application."
In a statement, SPR officials confirmed CHOP Art applied for a park use permit, a street closure permit and city funding for the event. SPR spokespeople said it did not file for a First Amendment rally permit which is protected under federal law.
"To date, Seattle Parks and Recreation has not received a 1st Amendment permit application from the CHOP Art group," SPR spokesperson Rachel Schulkin wrote. "For a variety of reasons, including that some of the permit applications were submitted too late, the permits were denied."
Schulkin said SPR reached out to the CHOP Art to provisionally grant it a First amendment event permit should they submit the appropriate application.
Anthony says he plans on setting up a display at Liberty Park on Juneteenth. He hopes the event will help advance the debate Seattle is having on reimagining policing.
"We understood that CHOP isn't a location," Anthony said. "It's an idea. We want to continue that idea and spread it to the community."