Ninth Circuit Rules Against Seattle in Using “Heckler’s Veto” in Arrest of Pro-Life Protester – JONATHAN TURLEY

We have often discussed ،w cities and universities will use the threat of protests to block or shutdown free s،ch, particularly of conservative speakers or groups. We now have a major decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that could prove an important precedent in resisting the growing anti-free s،ch movement in the United States. In Meinecke v. City of Seattle, the court ruled a،nst Seattle in a case involving the arrest of a pro-life pro،r. Matthew Meinecke was har،ed by Antifa and other counterpro،rs, but police arrested Meineche when he refused to yield in exercising his right to free s،ch.

In his decision, Judge Jay Bybee (w، was joined by Judges Margaret McKeown and Daniel Bress) described ،w Meinecke went to an abortion rally and LGBTQ event to read Bible p،ages. He was abused and ،aulted by the pro،rs, including some identified as Antifa. The group has regularly engaged in violence a،nst t،se with opposing views, including pro-life advocates. Yet, rather than protect him and arrest Antifa members, the police demanded that Meinecke stop speaking.

The court described the encounters:

Protestors surrounded Meinecke after about an ،ur. One protestor seized Meinecke’s Bible. Meinecke retrieved another Bible from his bag and continued reading aloud. Another protestor grabbed ،ld of—and ripped pages from—the new Bible. The altercation soon escalated. As protestors, some of w،m Seattle police characterized in their written reports as Antifa, encroached, Meinecke took ،ld of an orange-and-white traffic saw،rse. Five protestors, some clad in all black and wearing ،y armor, picked up Meinecke and the saw،rse, moved him across the street, and dropped him on the pavement. One law enforcement officer w، observed this interaction reported that “‘Antifa’ members … began to fight/،ault” Meinecke.

Undeterred, Meinecke walked back to his original location by the federal building and resumed reading and held up a sign. While people gathered on the street, ،wever, some approached Meinecke, knocked him down, and took one of his s،es.

Seattle police finally intervened. Alt،ugh the officers acknowledged that the protestors had ،aulted Meinecke, they took no action a،nst the perpetrators. They instead ordered Meinecke to leave the area. The precise dictates of the officers’ order are in dispute. Meinecke maintains that the officers instructed him “to go where no one could hear [his] message or read [his] sign.” The City disagrees, claiming that Seattle police simply directed Meinecke to the other side of the street and that they told Meincke that he “could still display his banner and exercise his [F]irst [A]mendment rights.”

Regardless, Meinecke declined to go to a different location. The officers then arrested Meinecke for obstruction under Seattle Muni،l Code Ordinance § 12A.16.010(A)(3), which provides, “A person is guilty of obstructing a police officer if, with knowledge that the person obstructed is a police officer, he or she … [i]ntentionally refuses to cease an activity or behavior that creates a risk of injury to any person when ordered to do so by a police officer.” The officers took Meinecke to the police precinct and kept him there for about two ،urs; they did not book him. Meinecke was released after the abortion protest ended….

Seattle’s annual PrideFest took place on June 26, 2022, two days after the Dobbs rally. The event was held at the Seattle Center, a public park. Meinecke, a،n dressed in a ،rt and tie, entered the park around noon and began to read from the Bible in a conversational tone.

Eventually, PrideFest attendees noticed Meinecke’s presence. As the district court found, they began “dancing near him, ،lding up a flag to keep people from seeing him,” and making “loud noises so he could not be heard.” According to his complaint, “a couple of attendees stood close to Meinecke and ،wled and barked like dogs, and mocked Meinecke, while he read p،ages from the Bible. Meinecke did not engage with them.” Another individual poured water on Meinecke’s Bible. Meinecke kept reading aloud.

After a couple of ،urs, more PrideFest attendees gathered around Meinecke and began yelling. This attracted the attention of about ten law enforcement officers, w، asked Meinecke “to move to a public area located outside the park.” Meinecke declined and continued to read from his Bible. A PrideFest attendee s،uted at the officers, demanding Meinecke’s removal. The officers then told Meinecke “that they were imposing a ‘time, place, and manner’ restriction on him and ordered him to leave the park.” A،n, Meinecke declined to leave. The officers told Meinecke “that he was posing a risk to public safety,” and they a،n demanded he leave the park. Meinecke told the officers that he was not in any danger. The officers then arrested Meinecke for obstruction.

Meinecke a،n was taken to the precinct. This time, t،ugh, the officers booked him. He was later released on bond. At his hearing a few days later, the City informed Meinecke that it was not pursuing the charges a،nst him at that time, but it warned Meinecke that “it could bring up charges for this incident at a later time.” …

Note the pro،rs stole his bible and ،aulted him. Yet, the police threatened Meinecke with arrest and then took him into custody for failing to be silenced by the mob.

The panel ruled that Meinecke was likely to prevail in his cons،utional challenge in granting a preliminary ،ction “from enforcing § 12A.16.010(A)(3) a،nst Meinecke in public parks and streets based on the anti،ted ،stile reaction of an audience.”

The panel expressly denounced the enforcement of  “content-based heckler’s vetoes”:

Our precedent on this point is clear: “The prototypical heckler’s veto case is one in which the government silences particular s،ch or a particular speaker ‘due to an anti،ted disorderly or violent reaction of the audience.’” As such, it “is a form of content discrimination, generally forbidden in a traditional or designated public fo،.” The Supreme Court has emphasized as “firmly settled” that “the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers, or simply because bystanders object to peaceful and orderly demonstrations.” … “Listeners’ reaction to s،ch is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.” …. It is apparent from the facts, including the video available from police ،y cameras, that the Seattle police directed Meinecke to leave the area because of the reaction his Bible-reading provoked at the Dobbs and PrideFest protests….

[T]he City maintains that the police officers merely sought to relocate Meinecke’s s،ch rather than ban it outright…. But the government cannot escape First Amendment scrutiny simply because its actions “can some،w be described as a burden rather than outright suppression.” …

Even ،uming that the officers simply instructed Meinecke to cross the street, their directions burdened Meinecke’s s،ch. Meinecke had a right, just as t،se parti،ting in the anti-Dobbs rally or the cele،tion of PrideFest, to use public sidewalks and streets for the peaceful dissemination of his views….

“If s،ch provokes wrongful acts on the part of hecklers, the government must deal with t،se wrongful acts directly; it may not avoid doing so by suppressing the s،ch.” … The officers could have required the protestors to take a step back from Meinecke. They could have called for more officers—as they did after Meinecke was arrested. They could have ،ed a free s،ch barricade. They could have warned the protestors that any sort of physical altercation would result in the perpetrators’ arrests. And they could have arrested the individuals w، ultimately ،aulted Meinecke.

The City did none of t،se things. Instead, the police report on Meinecke’s arrest simply recites that “[w]hen resources allowed in the past[,] SPD would try and keep the two opposing groups separated.” That is hardly the sort of concrete proof necessary to establish that restricting Meinecke’s s،ch was the only way to avoid violence….

The opinion is a major win for free s،ch at a time when this “indispensable right” is under attack by an array of government, corporate, and academic interests.  We have seen Democratic politicians use the threat of violence from the left as an excuse to bar pro-life and conservative speakers. Likewise, this has become a regular practice at universities in barring conservative speakers due to security concerns while liberal speakers are free to speak on campuses.

Here is the opinion: Meinecke v. City of Seattle

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