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Student’s arrest at EWU protest prompts First Amendment arguments

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 16, 2020

Eastern Washington University students shout to protest religious activists who denounced abortion and preached messages intolerant of LGBTQ people on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, on EWU’s Cheney campus. (KHQ)
Eastern Washington University students shout to protest religious activists who denounced abortion and preached messages intolerant of LGBTQ people on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, on EWU’s Cheney campus. (KHQ)

A defense attorney says a Cheney police officer had no right to arrest an Eastern Washington University student who was present when three religious activists showed up on campus in November, sparking a large protest.

Attorney Steve Graham on Thursday asked Cheney Municipal Judge Robert Leland to dismiss an obstruction charge against his client, Maya Caruth, a member of EWU’s student government.

Invoking the First Amendment, Graham questioned the right of law enforcement to separate protesters and counterprotesters into different sections of the campus mall based on their appearances and perceived political viewpoints.

Graham also requested a subpoena for videos belonging to the religious activists, one of whom wore a body camera during the Nov. 7 protest. Graham said he learned through a private investigator that the preachers also hid cameras in trees on the campus mall.

The protest involved hundreds of people, mostly EWU students. They gathered to counter the message of the religious activists, who arrived on campus with signs and portable speakers, preaching in derogatory terms about LGBT people.

Worried the demonstrations might turn violent, EWU police called in backup from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and the Spokane and Cheney police departments.

At one point during the disturbance, police allowed the preachers to stand on an outdoor stage and forced the counterprotesters to stay about 15 feet away, in a concrete seating area.

According to a police report, Caruth, 25, crossed the so-called “safety zone,” attempted to speak with one of the religious activists and refused a Cheney officer’s commands to go back to the other side.

The officer, Zebulon Campbell, asserted that Caruth’s actions were “enticing other counterprotesters to disregard police commands and creating an unsafe situation that could rapidly evolve into violence.”

One of the religious activists, Thomas R. Meyer, 66, of Rathdrum, was detained on suspicion of spanking and spitting on students. Police told him to leave campus for the rest of the day. Prosecutors have not filed charges against him.

In a phone call Wednesday, Meyer said he went to EWU to protest abortion and denounce climate science as a “hoax.” He said he hadn’t heard from authorities since the day of the protest and did not believe he would face charges.

“I knew they didn’t have any evidence against me, so I’m not worried about it,” he said.

Separately, records show one officer reported someone spit on him during the protest but could not identify who was responsible. And a minor student enrolled at EWU through the Running Start program reported one of the preachers shoved her with a plastic sign, an allegation that did not result in charges.

Meyer demonstrated on campus with Daniel Rusk, who runs the website walkaboutjesus.com, and Bruce Wakeman, who leads a group called the Lilac City Bible Fellowship and sometimes preaches on street corners in downtown Spokane.

On his website, Rusk says he evangelizes on college campuses as part of a “war against moral millennial madness.” Homosexuality, feminism, socialism and evolution, he says, are all “lies.”

It was Rusk who wore a body camera during the protest. According to court records, Caruth said she and Rusk were both trying to speak with each other when she crossed the buffer zone. In court Thursday, Graham and Cheney Prosecutor Angelle Gerl said they had been unable to get in contact with Rusk.

The protest began to wind down when EWU’s student body president, Kianna Baker, addressed the crowd, urging peers to stop giving the preachers attention.

“I never saw Maya Caruth holding any signs, or raising her voice, or getting angry or assaulting anyone,” Baker wrote in a court declaration. “I feel she was just doing as I was, i.e. attempting to show leadership and defuse the situation.”

Baker added that students were justifiably upset during the protest.

“We respect the First Amendment rights of the non-students, but their conduct did cross the line,” she wrote, referring to the preachers. “They targeted students individually for abuse with comments about their appearance, and made several threats to students.”

In court Thursday, Graham described Meyer, Rusk and Wakeman as “agitators” but defended their right to engage with EWU students.

Graham said “people are allowed to vent at high volumes and scream at each other” in public spaces like the EWU mall, and police can’t prevent such interactions based on speculation that demonstrators might resort to violence.

“But beyond that, the problem is there’s no evidence at all that Maya Caruth was a counterprotester or protesting at all,” Graham said.

In his motion to dismiss the case, Graham wrote that Caruth was within her rights to defy the officer.

“Officer Campbell didn’t have the right to limit Maya Caruth’s travel in this public space any more than the officer would have the right to limit a journalist in doing her job,” Graham wrote. “Nor should the officer have assumed that Maya Caruth was affiliated with either side of this disturbance based on how she appeared. He had no legal authority to direct her to go stand among any group of perceived protesters.”

Gerl, the prosecutor, argued police were within their rights to enforce the buffer zone because it didn’t completely prevent the two sides from getting their messages across to each other. She said Caruth defied multiple lawful commands.

In his report, Campbell wrote that he asked Caruth to move “at least five times” before grabbing her arm, at which point she pulled away and accused him of assaulting her.

Campbell wrote that Caruth was “uncooperative” and “extremely emotional,” refusing to identify herself and making several attempts to get out of her handcuffs in the back of his patrol car. First she slipped her right hand out of the cuffs; two times after that, she maneuvered her cuffed hands from behind her back to the front of her body, Campbell wrote.

“I would ask the court that these charges be maintained,” Gerl told the judge Thursday. “I do think they are appropriate.”

Judge Leland said he would consider both sides’ arguments and issue a decision at a hearing scheduled next month.

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