Court rules against protesters in Westlake mall case
Security guards for Seattle's Westlake Center did not violate anti-war protesters' free-speech rights in 2003 when they ordered them to...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Security guards for Seattle's Westlake Center did not violate anti-war protesters' free-speech rights in 2003 when they ordered them to lower picket signs inside the mall, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
A key issue in the case was whether the escalators and hallways of Westlake Center constituted a "public forum" in which broad free-speech protections apply.
Attorneys for the protesters argued that because the mall's owners had granted the city of Seattle an easement to allow people to travel through Westlake Center to get to and from the Monorail station on the third floor, the areas of the mall covered by the easement were essentially public property.
The state's high court disagreed.
In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled Westlake Center is not a "public forum." And even if it were a public forum, the security guards' actions were a "reasonable restriction on speech" and were "viewpoint-neutral," the justices ruled.
The decision affirmed a King County Superior Court ruling against protesters Beth Sanders and William and Patricia Daugaard in December 2004. Sanders and the Daugaards sued the city and the mall's owner after they were told by security guards not to hold their signs up while they were in Westlake, on the Monorail platform or on the Monorail.
"We're happy that the court ruled that a private-property owner can grant the city limited access rights without transforming its property into a traditional public forum," said Carlton Seu, an attorney for the city.
When Sanders and the Daugaards wanted to attend an anti-war protest at Seattle Center on Feb. 15, 2003, they decided to ride the Monorail from Westlake Center, according to court papers.
But crowds were large and the line for the Monorail was long.
The Daugaards decided to find another way to Seattle Center. On their way out of Westlake Center, they held an anti-war sign aloft as they descended the mall's escalators. Security guards repeatedly told them to lower their sign. They refused, and then left the mall without incident.
Sanders decided to wait for the Monorail. While standing inside the third floor of the mall, she held a sign that read "No Iraq War" above her head.
Security guards instructed her several times to lower the sign, but she refused. They threatened to ban her from the mall, but she was not removed and she eventually lowered the sign.
Randy Baker, an attorney who represented Sanders and the Daugaards, said Westlake Center acted improperly when it instructed its security guards to tell people to lower picket signs.
Baker took particular issue with a written policy of the mall that said "signs on sticks must be carried low to the ground and close to the body of the person holding the sign."
Such restrictions do not apply to protesters carrying picket signs on city streets, Baker said.
"I did not see any evidence that pickets in a shopping mall pose any greater danger than pickets on a sidewalk," he said.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Madsen said the easement granted to the city inside Westlake Center is not a public forum because it "is located on private property" and "is for a limited purpose: to provide pedestrian access to the Monorail station platform."
"It cannot be said that a principal use of the interior easement is the free exchange of ideas," Madsen concluded.
Baker countered that when Westlake Center granted the easement to the city, it granted citizens all the rights that apply on any public property.
"The government doesn't have the right to pick and choose like this what constitutional protections you have," Baker said.
The public-forum issue notwithstanding, the majority ruled that the security guards' actions were a "reasonable response to safety concerns in the physically limited environment" of the mall.
The judges also determined that the instructions to lower picket signs were "not an effort to suppress expression."
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org