Lawsuit: Selah officials removed signs supporting Black Lives Matter from city streets

Selah Alliance For Equality argues sign removal was unconstitutional

SELAH, Wash. — The City of Selah is facing a federal lawsuit over claims it violated residents’ constitutional right to free speech by selectively enforcing its municipal code to remove signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement from city streets.

“City officials have targeted and suppressed messages of racial equality and calls for change to personnel in local municipal government in unconstitutional and unlawful ways,” the lawsuit said.

Local activism group Selah Alliance For Equality, or SAFE, filed the lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington against the City of Selah, Mayor Sherry Raymond and City Administrator Donald Wayman.

“[SAFE has] tried, diplomatically, to resolve this dispute for over eight months,” said Joseph Cutler, who is representing SAFE in the lawsuit. “It hasn’t really amounted to much.”

KAPP-KVEW reached out to Selah city officials, who declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

The dispute between residents and city officials began earlier this year as the nation was reeling from the death of George Floyd, which sparked protests across the country. After one such protest June 6 in Selah, a Facebook post claimed Wayman had made controversial comments about the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the protest, Wayman reportedly told a Yakima City Council member that the march sounded like “Communist indoctrination” and that BLM is “based on neo-Marxism.”

When Wayman came under public criticism for those comments, Mayor Raymond and Selah City Council Member Kevin Wickenhagen both published proclamations in support of Wayman, saying that everyone has a right to express their opinions.

“Despite the city’s public opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, Selah citizens continued to voice their support for it,” the lawsuit said.

One family expressed their support by drawing BLM chalk art on the dead-end street in front of their Selah home, which was quickly and repeatedly washed away by city staff.

Wayman previously told KAPP-KVEW the city had received complaints about the chalk art and removed it because it fell under the definition of “graffiti” within the Selah Municipal Code. The decision was criticized as targeting the messages supporting BLM, as the city allowed chalk art featuring rainbows, stars and “Selah Class of 2020″ to remain untouched.

“After undersigned counsel explained to the city attorney that water-soluble chalk does not constitute a ‘graffiti implement,’ the city responded by threatening to
criminally prosecute those who continued to use chalk art to express their political viewpoints for criminal mischief,” the lawsuit said.

That’s when Selah and Yakima community members came together to form SAFE, “to address concerns about the city’s suppression of speech and in reaction to the statements and actions of [Wayman],” according to the lawsuit.

SAFE is run by a group of six administrators, made up of women who are current or former residents of Selah, including Courtney Hernandez, Anita Callahan, Kalah James, Anna Whitlock, Amanda Watson and Charlotte Town. The administrators are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with SAFE members Laura Perez and Rev. Donald Davis Jr.

Rev. Davis Jr. grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana during the civil rights movement; in a declaration he filed in support of the lawsuit, he recalled listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and marching with him shortly before he was assassinated.

“During the civil rights marches, city officials were often unwelcoming to our cause,” Rev. Davis Jr. said. “I was chased by police officers and German Shepherds and witnessed police beat my friends and family.”

In his declaration, Rev. Davis Jr. said witnessing the City of Selah’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement has brought back dark memories from the civil rights era.

“In some ways, the City of Selah’s strong opposition to messages of equality and inclusion makes me more fearful than I was while growing up in the South,” Rev. Davis Jr. said. “It makes me concerned that we have not made the progress that Reverend King died fighting for years ago.”

Since its creation this summer, SAFE has since grown to include nearly 700 members, according to the lawsuit.

Several SAFE members delivered a set of goals and objectives to city officials on June 13 to, “emphasize the need for Selah and its government to become more anti-racist,” the lawsuit said. The goals included de-escalation training for police officers, investments in community social services and the removal of Wayman as city administrator.

To communicate messages of equality to the public, SAFE raised enough money to purchase signs Aug. 10 to display across town, reading “Black Lives Matter,” “Fire Donald Wayman,” “Hate has no place in Selah” and “Support Equality for All,” the lawsuit said.

“Very close to putting them up, they started disappearing,” Cutler said.

The signs went up Aug. 20; by the next day, at least 12 were gone. According to the lawsuit, a SAFE member reported the signs as stolen to the police and was told they had been removed by the Selah Public Works Department, as they were illegal under the city’s municipal code.

By the end of the month, at least 63 signs — nearly $400 worth — had gone missing from various locations across the city, the lawsuit said. The SAFE member was later told the city’s prosecuting attorney would not be pursuing charges in connection with the sign thefts.

About two months later, at an Oct. 13 meeting of the Selah City Council, both Wayman and Raymond admitted to removing the signs.

“The signs are illegal,” Raymond said. “They are coming down and we will continue to take them down.”

The city’s municipal code prohibits prohibits any sign from being erected in traditional public forums without a permit, but exempts some signs depending on the message they convey to the public.

“[The law limits] political signs to those ‘advocating a political party or a candidate(s) for public offices, or a sign urging a particular vote on a public issue decided by ballot,’ which amounts to a ban on signs expressing views on non-ballot political and social issues or signs that support ’causes’ rather than specific candidates or ballot initiatives,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues the law is unconstitutional because it regulates signs based on their content. Additionally, the lawsuit argues city officials enforced the law in a selective, unconstitutional way, targeting SAFE signs for removal while leaving up other signs “illegal” under the city code.

“Residents of Selah have a longstanding history of posting signs of many types (business signs, yard sale signs, event announcements, and directional signs) on public property without first obtaining the permits required by SMC 10.38.040; and those signs are not removed by city personnel nor by private citizens with any regularity,” the lawsuit said.

Similar concerns were shared at the Oct. 13 meeting by council members Suzanne Vargas and Russell Carlson.

“This enforcement has only begun recently when these signs were contrary to what you wanted,” Carlson said to Raymond during the meeting.

Raymond reiterated her support of removing the signs, asking Carlson, “How would you like it if people put up signs with your name on them all over town, Russ? Are you gonna drive by every day and let them stay there?”

“I wouldn’t love it, but I also respect that people have a right to say what they want,” Carlson replied.

According to the lawsuit, Wayman also encouraged private citizens to remove the signs, saying “the signs being taken and disposed of by any person or entity is not illegal, and not theft, and it is equivalent to picking up litter.”

The day after the meeting, SAFE sent a letter to the city’s attorney with four demands: to direct city employees to stop removing signs, to have the city publicly warn residents that it’s illegal to steal signs, to notify the city that their municipal code regarding signs was unconstitutional and require the city to return any confiscated signs in their possession and compensate SAFE for the remainder of the missing signs.

“In response, the city’s contract attorney, Mr. Case, told the city to stop taking SAFE’s  signs—barely addressing just one of SAFE’s demands,” the lawsuit said. “The city’s elected and appointed officials said nothing.”

To date, SAFE has spent more than $3,000 to purchase 500 signs; at least 275 of those signs are missing and more continue to disappear, according to the lawsuit.

“The city’s policy, practice, and custom of silencing messages of racial equality—including defendants Wayman’s and Raymond’s collection and disposal of SAFE’s signs across Selah, and defendants’ encouragement that private citizens do the same—has forced SAFE to divert resources that would otherwise be used to further its mission in order to replace its confiscated and stolen signs,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues the city’s municipal code policies on signs and its selective enforcement of the code based on a sign’s content violate both the Washington state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

In the lawsuit, SAFE asks the court to rule the municipal code regarding signs unconstitutional and require the city to return any confiscated signs to SAFE and compensate them for the remainder of the missing signs.