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Signature-gatherers sue Puyallup, saying city's ban near fairgrounds restricts free speech

A ban that keeps signature-gatherers from the sidewalks by the main entrances of the Washington State Fair in Puyallup will remain in effect for this year’s event, while a lawsuit against the ban works its way through federal court.
A ban that keeps signature-gatherers from the sidewalks by the main entrances of the Washington State Fair in Puyallup will remain in effect for this year’s event, while a lawsuit against the ban works its way through federal court. Staff file, 2014

Roy Ruffino says the city of Puyallup can’t stop him from gathering initiative signatures on sidewalks adjoining the Washington State Fairgrounds.

The city sees it differently, relying on an executive order from City Manager Kevin Yamamoto that designates “pedestrian safety zones” in the area, activated during September’s annual fair and the smaller Spring Fair.

The argument is headed for a federal courtroom. Ruffino, a veteran of public initiative campaigns, recently filed suit in Tacoma’s U.S. District Court, claiming the city and the police department violated his civil rights and that the safety zones infringe on free speech.

The suit stems from an April 19 incident when police officers shooed Ruffino and other signature-gatherers away from the main entrance to the fairgrounds, also known as the Gold Gate.

The encounter was captured on video and described in multiple police reports. In one exchange, Ruffino sparred with Puyallup Police Capt. Ryan Portmann, who told Ruffino to leave or face a possible arrest for trespassing and pedestrian interference.

"Pedestrian interference? How am I possibly pedestrian interfering with anyone here?" Ruffino asked.

"I am done debating," Portmann replied, handing Ruffino a copy of the city’s latest executive order designating the safety zones. "I would encourage you to read that."

A subsequent police report filed by Portmann and included in court records refers to Ruffino and other signature-gatherers, who were pitching I-976, a Tim Eyman-backed initiative related to car tab fees, and I-1608, an initiative aimed at government transparency.

"The subjects were positioned in such a manner as to contact people as they crossed the street via the sidewalk," the police report states. "While watching the subjects, I observed at least one subject sign a petition right at the crosswalk as others were standing around."

The safety zones in question apply to sidewalks near the Blue Gate, along the 1000 block of Meridian, the city’s busiest street, and the nearby Gold Gate at the intersection of Meridian and Ninth Avenue Southwest, where large groups of pedestrians cross the streets to enter the grounds.

According to the city’s executive order, the safety zones are intended to prohibit "anything that obstructs, impedes, blocks, hinders, hampers, prohibits, slows, delays or otherwise interferes with pedestrian traffic" and "substantially degrades pedestrian safety and increases the risk of injury."

City spokeswoman Brenda Fritsvold supplied an unsigned statement from the city defending the safety zones, noting that they are limited in scope and meant to avoid "needless harm associated with delays, diversion and congestion" during the fair’s busiest times.

Ruffino and his attorney, Fred Diamondstone, take a different view. The lawsuit says the city and police are enforcing the zones in an "unreasonable and overbroad manner to bar all constitutionally protected activity both at — and across the street from — the two principal entrances to the Washington Fairgrounds."

The suit notes that police officers didn’t direct Ruffino and the signature-gatherers to simply move away from the crosswalk. Instead, the officers cited the city’s executive order as a basis "to completely bar signature gathering and other constitutionally protected activity along a 121-foot stretch of public sidewalk."

Pedestrians could "easily and readily" walk past the signature gatherers or ignore them, the suit adds. It also suggests that the U.S. Supreme Court already declared similar, smaller zones unconstitutional in a 2014 case known as McCullen v. Coakley.

Resolution of the argument is a long way off. The legal proceedings are in the preliminary stages. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle ordered the parties to agree on the discovery process and file a joint status report by Aug. 15.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT
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