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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A ‘chilling effect’ on Boise protests? Sierra Club files federal suit over city law

By Sarah Cutler Idaho Statesman

In May of 2022, abortion rights activist Kimra Luna was arrested for using a megaphone at a protest in downtown Boise. Luna — who identifies as nonbinary — had used a megaphone at many protests before, so when police demanded that Luna turn it off, they ignored the officers.

“I just kept chanting because I was like, ‘I’m not going to allow the police to intimidate me,’” Luna told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. “I kept chanting, I kept chanting, until eventually the police officers began ripping my megaphone out of my hands.”

According to decades-old city code, using a megaphone at a protest is illegal, a violation of the city’s noise ordinance. For decades, that law went largely unenforced — until the Boise Police Department apparently began to crack down in recent years, advocates say.

Sometime in 2021, officers began ticketing and at times arresting protesters who violated the law, Lisa Young, the director of the Sierra Club, told the Statesman.

“I’ve been an activist in this community for a long time, our lawyers have been working in this community for a long time,” Young said. “Boise is relatively small enough to where we know what happens in different protest spaces over the years, and we have never seen this prior to … essentially 2021. And then suddenly, the enforcement began … For those of us in the local advocacy scene, there was a notable shift.”

The Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, sued the city this week over its noise ordinance, as well as its requirement that groups get permission from the city before holding a meeting in a city park. In its filing on Tuesday in federal district court, the Sierra Club argued that the laws’ vagueness and uneven enforcement were unconstitutionally limiting protesters’ freedom of speech.

“Police in Boise have recently started ticketing protesters for using megaphones — and arresting them if they don’t stop,” the filing reads. “Police are now using Boise’s ordinances to silence and chill protected free speech in public forums where it is the most protected: the streets, sidewalks, plazas, and parks of downtown Boise.”

After their arrest in 2022, Luna was “traumatized,” Young said. At subsequent protests, when a fellow demonstrator tried to pass Luna the megaphone, Luna had a panic attack and wound up leaving the event because they were so “distraught,” they said.

Whether protesters face arrest or just confrontation with an officer “walking over telling you to turn off your device,” the result is a “chilling effect on protests,” Young said.

In its filing, the Sierra Club alleged the city has disproportionately enforced the noise ordinance against left-leaning protesters, citing the ticketing of a demonstrator at a 2021 protest against police injustice; arrests at abortion-rights protests in 2022 and 2023; and the ticketing of a pro-Palestine protest in December.

The Sierra Club does not have data on when and how often the department has enforced the law, but has a sense “anecdotally” that right-leaning protesters have not faced the same enforcement, Young said.

“We have observed instances where there are people using other loudspeakers at events that we do not see the police intervening on,” she said. “People have mentioned that, at the Pride event last year, there were some counter-protesters of some sort that were being really loud and using some kind of amplified sound device … kind of heckling some of the Pride events. To our knowledge, those people were not detained or anything, or asked to stop doing that.”

Haley Williams, a spokesperson for the Boise Police Department, declined to comment on how the department enforces the law, citing the ongoing litigation.

Young emphasized that the suit is not just about allowing left-leaning protesters to demonstrate freely.

“Our position in this case is we don’t think anyone should be censored in this way,” she said.

“From what we can tell, the enforcement has been primarily directed at progressive activists … but just want to be clear: We think that everyone has this First Amendment right and should be able to exercise it.”

In its filing, the Sierra Club asked the court for an injunction in the case in hopes that the organization would be able to use megaphones at youth climate strikes planned for April 19.