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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council wavers after activists threaten to sue city over new public testimony rules

Protestors turn their backs Spokane City Council members as they vote to suspend the rules for the Monday night session on standing during public testimony at City Hall in downtown Spokane.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

When the Spokane City Council last week approved controversial changes to rules for public testimony, council member Zack Zappone insisted that a new ban on certain behaviors like people standing or turning their backs were well within the council’s rights to enforce.

“Standing is not a right,” he said. “If it is a right, you can sue the city of Spokane.”

A week later, one group threatened to do just that, refusing during Monday’s City Council meeting to abide by particular rule changes they argue violate state law and the U.S. Constitution. In response, though multiple council members called the behavior intimidating, the Spokane City Council unanimously voted Monday to suspend the challenged rules for the night.

Spokane Community Against Racism, which has been involved in months of protest against an October resolution passed by the Spokane City Council in support of Israel, had written in a Monday letter that it would sue the city if some of the recently approved changes to public testimony are enforced during council meetings, arguing they violate the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Please know that SCAR will bring legal action in the event the Spokane City Council violates the (public meetings act),” stated a letter sent to Mayor Lisa Brown and council members Monday. “SCAR will also bring action on behalf of any of its members, whose constitutional rights or rights under (the act) are violated.”

Specifically, the group wrote that it would be illegal to enforce a new ban on the public standing in support or turning their backs in opposition to council members or other speakers, as well as a prohibition on filming or taking photos in council chambers except in a small portion of the room dedicated to the media.

Early in the evening, first one and eventually a handful of protesters stood up on the side of council chambers. In response, council members called two short recesses, before Zappone made a motion to suspend the prohibition against standing for the night.

Though the City Council unanimously agreed to suspend the rules, after which protesters moved to the front row of the audience and turned their backs, several council members called the behavior intimidating.

“I will not have my wife and my child come down in this environment,” council member Michael Cathcart said. “There’s a lot of safety concerns, and that is something that’s worrisome.”

The City Council also unanimously voted to suspend the night’s open forum period, during which the public can speak on issues not currently up for a vote or consideration, saying that it was not fair to the public to have to speak amid tensions in the council chamber.

Monday’s letter warning about possible legal action was written on SCAR’s behalf by Spokane attorney Natasha Hill, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, in 2022, and is the interim editor of the soon-to-be-relaunched Black Lens newspaper. The first edition of the new Black Lens will publish Sunday inside The Spokesman-Review and will receive some production assistance from current and former members of The Spokesman-Review staff who have volunteered, but the publication will be independent from The Spokesman-Review.

Hill has participated in recent protests in City Council chambers alongside SCAR and other groups over an Oct. 9 resolution in support of Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas.

Protesters stood in support at a Nov. 6 Spokane City Council meeting that was shutdown during a protest over former City Council President Lori Kinnear’s interpretation of rules regarding public testimony.

Kinnear had ruled repeatedly in the month leading up to the Nov. 6 meeting that the public would not be allowed to name council members in their comments, which primarily blocked pro-Palestinian speakers from naming Council member Jonathan Bingle, who sponsored the resolution. The council reversed that interpretation shortly after protest, with Kinnear saying it was “not the hill to die on.”

However, pro-Palestinian activists feel that many of the new rules adopted last week by the City Council were another reactionary attempt to specifically quash their dissent. The prohibition against standing in particular seemed pointed, as it had almost entirely been pro-Palestinian activists standing during council meetings.

“If this system was working the way we’re told it does, our engagement here at city council would be seen as a success,” Zachary McGuckin, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and a frequent speaker at City Hall, said during testimony in opposition to the rule changes. “It would not be seen as something that needs to be restricted or stopped or punished.”

Council members have argued that standing, taking photos or filming is potentially disruptive and could block the view of other audience members. In response, protesters on Monday stood and turned their backs at the rear and sides of the room.

SCAR’s letter to the council also argued that film and photography could be taken without disrupting other audience members, and warned that removing its members under either rule would violate their rights.

The letter argued the City Council had participated in a pattern of adopting rules to suppress the speech of specific people and groups.

“Members of SCAR, particularly young and people of color, are targeted while, older, white, non-members are not,” Hill wrote on behalf of SCAR. “There is ample recorded evidence that these rules are arbitrarily applied based on who you are, not what you say or do.”