Date registered: Aug 2002
Vehicle: 2021 SL770
Location: Fountain Hills, AZ
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Latest forbidden word: Wal-Mart
ACLU challenges Yelm City Council's "speak no Wal-Mart" policy
YELM, Wash. -- A "speak-no-Wal-Mart" policy in Town Council meetings is getting a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Aaron H. Caplan, an ACLU lawyer in Seattle, has written Yelm Mayor Adam Rivas and council members that the group believes it is unconstitutional to prohibit any mention of Wal-Mart or big-box stores in general at council meetings.
The policy has been increasingly restrictive over the past five months. No one who signs up to talk about big-box stores, much less Wal-Mart, at a council meeting is allowed to talk, and anyone who mentions big-box stores or Wal-Mart is told to sit down.
Municipal attorney Brent f. Dille said council members were fed up with complaints about Wal-Mart's application to build a superstore and demands for a moratorium on big-box stores. He also said officials don't want to appear biased if the council is presented with an appeal of Wal-Mart's application.
Caplan wrote that no law requires the council to forbid all mention of the issue at its meetings.
"The ability of citizens to state their views about matters of public concern is one of the cornerstones of a free and accountable government," he wrote. "Yelm's practice of silencing public comment violates that principle."
Federal court rulings cited by Caplan don't apply to Yelm, Rivas argued.
"Everything they list in there comes from court cases in other states that have nothing to do with Washington state and the appearance of fairness act that we're trying to uphold," the mayor said. "For the most part, we feel fairly confident in what we're doing and the steps that we're taking."
ACLU spokesman Doug Honig disagreed: The First Amendment applies to every citizen of the United States, he said.
Rivas does not expect any change in policy as the result of the letter and doesn't plan to answer it, despite Caplan's request for a response this month.
"We don't answer to the ACLU," Rivas said.
The ACLU is not planning a lawsuit over the issue, Honig said, because despite Rivas' comment, municipal attorney Dille called the ACLU soon after they received the letter and agreed to send a written clarification of the policy and an explanation of how it would be enforced in the future.
"Many times our role is to help education public officials about the Constitution," Honig said. "Most of our work doesn't result in lawsuits."
Dille said he had been in touch with Caplan and the ACLU seemed willing to accept a ban on discussion of Wal-Mart but felt the latest policy was excessive.
Dille would not comment to The Olympian about a parallel ban on the use of the word moratorium.
"I wasn't at that (council) meeting," he said.
A call to national Wal-Mart headquarters seeking comment was referred to local store officials, who didn't immediately return a call.
The ACLU has also expressed concern about a new rule adopted by the Pierce County Council and Honig said that discussion could be heading toward litigation. The rule on public comment periods says "speakers may not attack or make an allusion to the motives of any council member."
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