Law and order: Seattle can, enforce anti-graffiti laws, Ninth Circuit Court says

Seattle graffiti in Seattle Autonomous Zone in 2020. Photo credit: Brian Gomes Bascoy –

It’s a win for law and order in Seattle.

Seattle, told by a lower court judge that it could not enforce its anti-graffiti laws, has won in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the city’s ordinance was not unconstitutional, as claimed by four people arrested for defacing public property in 2021.

City Attorney Ann Davison appealed the lower court ruling in July and the oral arguments were hard by the Ninth Circuit on Jan. 3, 2024.

“The people of Seattle won an important victory today when the Ninth Circuit upheld our City’s right to enforce our laws against graffiti property destruction,” said City Attorney Ann Davison, who ran for office on a law-and-order platform in a city that has devolved into what some see as a liberal hellhole. “Graffiti is a massive problem for our City, costing taxpayers, businesses, and residents millions of dollars while creating widespread visual blight. We must have as many tools as possible to protect neighbors and residents impacted by graffiti.”

Last June, the U.S. District Court judge in Seattle had enjoined the city from enforcing its graffiti ordinance, known as Seattle Municipal Code 12A.08.020(A)(2).

It’s a victory for Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, who made public disorder and specifically graffiti crackdowns central to her campaign two years ago.

The four plaintiffs had been arrested for using chalk on the sidewalk in front of the Seattle East Precinct police building to write statements such as “F[***] the Police.” Although they were not prosecuted, they did spend a night in jail, and now, in 2024, the two-year statute of limitations has run out on a potential indictment. But the four graffiti writers sued anyway, saying their First Amendment rights had been violated and that the Seattle ordinance is overly vague under the 14th Amendment.

A liberal Seattle judge who had been appointed by former President Bill Clinton agreed with the four and said that such an arrest amounted to censorship. She noted that children would be unlikely to be arrested for drawing rainbows on the sidewalk in front of their houses, but the four people were arrested for writing something that “irks” an officer of the law. But City Attorney Davison said that District Judge Marsha Pechman’s argument was wildly hypothetical.

“The mere fact that the city and its officers have discretion to enforce the local ordinance in some circumstances and not others is not a sufficient basis for concluding that the local ordinance is wholly vague such that it can never be enforced,” the three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit explained in their brief, agreeing with Davison.

The attorney for the four said that the case is not over.

Braden Pence, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that their lawsuit will continue in the courts.

“Our fight for the right to criticize the Seattle Police Department in children’s sidewalk chalk written on public property without fear of arrest and booking into jail is not over,” Pence said in a statement. “The Ninth Circuit left open paths whereby Judge Pechman can still find the anti-writing ordinance unconstitutional, and we look forward to continuing to pursuing these claims in court.”

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