The sidewalks along the main entrances to the Washington State Fairgrounds won’t be fair game for initiative signature-gatherers during Puyallup’s main event — this year.
A signature-gather sued the city of Puyallup earlier this year, contending the so-called “pedestrian safety zones” that keep him from those entrances violate his free speech rights.
While the lawsuit works its way through federal court in Tacoma, Roy Ruffino asked U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle to keep the city from enforcing the zones during this year’s fair, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 23.
On Thursday, Settle said no to the request for a preliminary injunction.
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Ruffino’s attorney, Fred Diamondstone, had argued that face-to-face contact is important to the free speech activity of gathering signatures.
“This is core political speech here,” Diamondstone, told the court.
The city’s restrictions, he said, “pushes Mr. Ruffino too far away to be able to engage with people.”
Ruffino was collecting signatures outside the Spring Fair in April, when police told him to leave. They said he could be arrested for trespassing and pedestrian interference.
The zones are near the fair’s Blue Gate and Gold Gate, and take effect during the fall fair and the Spring Fair. They extend “along sections of sidewalk up to 121 feet in length,” according to Ruffino’s lawsuit.
Puyallup says they’re necessary to prevent congestion that could lead to injuries, such as someone stepping into the roadway.
“We’re not talking about a ban on free speech,” Adam Rosenberg, an attorney representing the city, told the court. “We’re talking about a ban on obstructive conduct.”
Ruffino argued in his motion for the injunction that the fall fair is a big opportunity for him, in part because many of the 1 million-plus fairgoers come from rural areas that tend to be more conservative, and therefore are more likely to support Initiative 976, a Tim Eyman-backed measure about car tab fees.
Ruffino’s company, Citizen Solutions, has contracted to gather signatures for the initiative.
Settle said that, while Ruffino’s effort technically could be irrevocably hurt by not being able to collect signatures in the zones during this year’s fair, “the same could be said of the city of Puyallup,” if the zones weren’t enforced and someone were injured.
“The court is reluctant to interfere with a city’s good faith effort to try to balance these very important competing interests,” of public safety and free speech, Settle said.
But he said the city could take another look at the executive order that created the safety zones, to see if it could be improved.
It’s still early in the case, the judge said, and he asked that the city and Ruffino investigate whether the executive order could be amended, to avoid further litigation.
Asked about that, City Manager Kevin Yamamoto said: “... we don’t want to compromise in the executive order if it’s going to increase the risk to the public. ... We’re certainly open to changes that would be good for both sides.”