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Balancing public safety with first amendment rights

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I am kicking this off with a discussion of the Aggressive Solicitation ordinance. If the volume of e-mails my office received in the last week is any indication (over 600!), this definitely falls into the controversial category.

Councilmember Tim Burgess’s Public Safety and Education committee work plan started with discussion of his five point plan “Addressing Street Disorder to Preserve Jobs and Improve our Quality of Life.”  Point three of this plan is his proposed Aggressive Solicitation ordinance.  The other four points are far less controversial, and would include more police foot patrols in these neighborhoods and increased social services for individuals in need. The Seattle Police Department is proactively figuring out ways to reassign some of the existing bike patrol to foot patrol without increasing their budget, but significant changes in either foot patrols or social services will require more money, which we are short on at the moment.

Let’s turn to the ordinance and some specific points of contention.

First, the legislation creates a new civil infraction for aggressive solicitation, which would give the police a new tool – they could issue a $50 ticket by simply observing someone violating the ordinance.  I have had many opportunities to discuss this ordinance with community members, nonprofits, attorneys, and police officers. Some argue this new tool will give the police the much-needed ability to address the handful of folks who are truly aggressive and intimidating.  Others argue that this would give the police too much discretion in allowing who can and cannot solicit on the street.

I believe this legislation is an attempt to address a real issue of street disorder on downtown streets, but it also raises issues about how we treat the diverse group of people on Seattle’s streets while protecting everyone’s civil rights.  It is not clear to me what the impact of this new law would be on those visiting, working and living in downtown Seattle.

Another concern of mine is that this law, by design, will not address many of the concerns raised during public testimony.  At Tuesday’s meeting, we heard from business owners who complained that a handful of unruly individuals make it difficult to conduct business and attract customers to downtown.  We heard a story about a gentleman who was punched in the face after declining to give money, resulting in a broken jaw. We heard about someone, perhaps with a mental illness, who regularly clears a section of Westlake Park single-handedly by speaking loudly and offensively. Prohibiting aggressive solicitation, however, is not necessary to help the gentleman with a broken jaw because that is already prohibited conduct—that is assault. At the other end of the spectrum, speaking loudly and offensively in a public space is a First Amendment right, and this law will not impinge upon those federal rights.  In fact, the proposed ordinance is under revision to avoid violating civil rights – specifically the right to free speech. 

I understand the legitimate concerns about bad behavior on our street and its impact on residents and businesses.  In my mind, there are two types of behavior that need to be addressed, and it is our job as Councilmembers to ensure we distinguish them correctly. A portion of the complaints we hear – the cursing, yelling, political lobbying – are simply part of living in a big city and a free society like ours.  People have the right to express their political, religious, or other views in ways that may make some of us uncomfortable. 

However, the government does have the right to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. The United States District Court of the Western District of Washington has ruled that “threats to cause bodily injury or physical damage to the property of another which would make a reasonable person fearful of such harm are not protected speech.” Roulette v. City of Seattle, 850 F.Supp. 1442, 1453 (1994). Thus, there is a component of behavior that is not protected and this behavior is unacceptable. I will work to ensure that the public’s safety is adequately addressed by any legislation the council approves.  While I understand the concerns of the public in giving the police too much discretion and ensuring continual oversight of the police, I believe that the police department would do its best to train officers to use this new tool in an appropriate way to effectively reduce street disorder. 

Finally, if we want to make significant inroads into the myriad of problems this legislation touches upon,  we need to invest in social services to ensure those in need can receive housing, counseling, or treatment. We may also need to provide better funding for well-trained police foot patrols that can accurately enforce the law and assist those who might need additional public resources.

Whether this piece of legislation is a necessary part of the five-point plan is not yet clear to me.  I look forward to hearing from you about this issue.


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Comment from Tamsen Spengler
Time April 20, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Thank you for voting no on the Solicitation Ordinance. I appreciate your honesty and integrity to stay true to your campaign promises.

Comment from Jillian Butler
Time October 28, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Mike, I would love to hear city council discuss the negative cycle that panhandling causes for the homeless, addicted or mentally ill people in our city; keeping those in need on the streets and out of the available helping hands. I respect that panhandling may be a first amendment right; but something MUST be done to encourage our residents and tourists to direct their generosity to charities who can REALLY help people in crisis, rather than aiding life on the street.

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