Class-action WTO suit filed against Seattle

A team of high-profile civil-rights attorneys filed a federal class-action lawsuit yesterday against the city of Seattle on behalf of hundreds of World Trade Organization demonstrators arrested here last fall.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, argues that Mayor Paul Schell and police officials violated the constitutional rights of demonstrators by creating a "no-protest zone" that barred unauthorized persons from a 25-block area of downtown on Dec. 1 and 2, 1999.

The lawsuit initially is being brought on behalf of four individuals, but lawyers hope to win class-action certification, which would make most of the 600 or so protesters who were arrested during the WTO eligible for damages.

The most wide-ranging WTO-related lawsuit filed to date is spearheaded by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ), a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm formed in the 1980s at the urging of Ralph Nader.

The complaint asks for a declaration that the city's no-protest zone violated the U.S. and state constitutions and for unspecified damages on behalf of more than 600 people who were arrested because of it.

"City officials acted as though they could repeal the First Amendment by executive fiat. This lawsuit is to establish that they can't," said Arthur Bryant, TLPJ's executive director, who will discuss the lawsuit at a news conference at 10 a.m. today in Westlake Park, where some of the WTO-related arrests took place.

"This is America. People can't be arrested for peaceful protests. They can't be arrested for walking or talking or breathing downtown," Bryant said.

To pursue what it hopes will be a precedent-setting case, TLPJ has enlisted a team of civil-rights lawyers, led by Seattle attorney Steve Berman, known for his shareholder lawsuits against Boeing and for helping Washington and other Western states win a share of a $206 billion settlement with tobacco companies.

In addition to Berman and Bryant, the team behind the lawsuit includes Seattle attorneys John Muenster, Ben Schwartzman, Michael Withey, Fred Diamondstone and Yvonne Kinoshita Ward. TLPJ attorney Victoria Ni and Professor Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of Southern California Law School also will assist.

The city's no-protest zone was created on Dec. 1 last year by Schell after protesters clogged city streets and blocked WTO delegates from attending the conference. City officials have defended the zone, which they call a "limited curfew zone," arguing it was a temporary, necessary response to the chaos in the streets.

In an interview last week, Schell, who was unaware of the new lawsuit, defended his WTO emergency proclamations as swift and decisive actions needed under the circumstances.

"I think when you've got an emergency you don't need a Seattle process," Schell said.

Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran's office yesterday had no comment on the lawsuit. But a Sidran spokeswoman noted that the city's actions have been upheld once in federal court.

On Dec. 2, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan refused to grant a motion by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington for a temporary restraining order against the lockdown.

In that ruling, Bryan cited federal court cases that upheld the right of authorities to establish no-protest zones outside abortion clinics. He ruled that the city's restrictions, at first glance, appeared to be "narrowly and neutrally drawn."

But Bryan, who issued the ruling after a hearing conducted by phone, only rejected the ACLU's motion for an immediate restraining order. The judge noted that "when all of the facts and issues are examined in further litigation, the defendants' action may be proven wrong."

The lawyers pursuing the class-action lawsuit hope to prove just that. They point to a 1996 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that overruled a curfew imposed by San Francisco to quell riots sparked by the acquittal of police officers who had been accused in the videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. San Francisco later paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 425 people jailed for violating the curfew. The plaintiffs had sought $8 million.

One of the four plaintiffs in the WTO lawsuit, Jennifer Hudziec, 25, was arrested while protesting near Westlake Center on the morning of Dec. 1.

Hudziec, 25, was carrying a homemade cardboard sign that read: "The WTO oppresses women and children."

In an interview last week, Hudziec said she wasn't affiliated with a particular group. She came to protest an organization she believes is "anti-democratic, anti-humanitarian, anti-environmental and anti-animal."

"I was exercising my rights, my constitutional rights of free speech and right to assemble in a nonviolent way," Hudziec said.

Hudziec and hundreds of other protesters were surrounded at Westlake by police, who ordered those who did not want to be arrested to step aside, according to the lawsuit.

Hudziec said she chose to step aside to stand with the group that she believed would not be arrested. But police wound up arresting them anyway.

The demonstrators were loaded onto Metro buses and taken to a temporary holding facility at Sand Point, where they refused to leave the buses until they could speak with lawyers.

Police finally removed the protesters forcibly with the aid of pepper spray, Hudziec said. She was booked into King County Jail and held for three days. Charges against Hudziec and most of the other demonstrators were later dropped by the city.

Hudziec said she is pursuing a lawsuit to show city leaders their actions were wrong.

"Unfortunately, the only way to make them understand that is through monetary means. That's how they speak," she said.

The other three initial plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Stephanie Lane, Kenneth Hankin and Robert Hickey.

Hickey, a teamster from New York, was arrested after a confrontation between police and labor marchers at First Avenue and Clay Street - outside the city's official no-protest zone.

The TLPJ lawsuit argues that police were not well-informed about the size or purpose of the no-protest zone, using it to "stifle all expression and demonstration in a much more expansive area."

Said Bryant: "The real policy seemed to be the police could arrest anybody who looked like a protester, anywhere."

The WTO conference last fall was brought to Seattle by international-trade boosters who saw it as an opportunity for the city to showcase itself as a world-class metropolis.

But the atmosphere turned sour when 50,000 demonstrators converged here to protest WTO policies they say damage the environment and human rights. Police, outnumbered and ill-prepared, resorted to pepper spray and tear gas to clear downtown streets.

While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some took advantage of the chaos to smash windows and deface storefronts with graffiti. The city was left holding a bill of more than $9 million and is now pursuing reimbursement in Congress.

That bill could swell, as more than 60 claims for damages have been filed against the city by protesters complaining of civil-rights abuses and business owners who lost money because of the unrest. Several of those claims have turned into federal or state lawsuits.

Miyoko Wolf, Seattle Times information specialist, contributed to this report.