Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Regional Interests

Is it now a crime to protest near Vancouver public schools? Not exactly

Protesters yell at passing cars during an anti-mask demonstration in front of Skyview High School on September 3, 2021in Vancouver, Washington.
Protesters yell at passing cars during an anti-mask demonstration in front of Skyview High School on September 3, 2021in Vancouver, Washington.

A recent ban on protests near several Vancouver schools appears to be legal and enforceable, but that doesn’t mean anybody holding a sign near a school will be arrested.

Superior Court Judge Suzan Clark on Tuesday ordered an injunction to prevent rallies and protests “that disrupt education services” after recent, vitriolic anti-mask protests near Skyview High School. A Sept. 3 protest, which included members of the Proud Boys, prompted administrators to put the campus and two nearby schools into lockdown.

The judge’s order says such protests can no longer be held within a mile of any property owned by Vancouver Public Schools. The district maintains it owns roughly 40 properties in the county.

After the injunction became public Wednesday, some decried it as unconstitutional. However, legal experts say the situation is not so clear cut.

An injunction is a civil action, meaning it does not criminalize protests in a way that the Constitution prohibits. If a person knowingly violates a civil injunction, that person may face consequences at a judge’s discretion, such as fines or even jail time.

”They’re not violating any crime,” said Rachael Rogers, senior deputy prosecutor with the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office “What they’re violating is a civil injunction. And there are different remedies for a violation of that civil injunction.”

Violating injunctions can lead to consequences at a judge’s discretion, Rogers said, such as fines or even jail time.

It’s also a question as to whom the injunction applies. The Sept. 7 order names only two parties, Megan Gabriel and “All John Doe individuals.” Gabriel, the mother of a Skyview High School student, reportedly helped organize several of the recent rallies.

According to Rogers, the injunction applies to anyone who is properly aware of it. Clark’s injunction made headlines throughout the Pacific Northwest and was announced in a press release by Vancouver Public Schools. Deputies telling protesters about the injunction would also serve as formal notice, Rogers said.

“The order applies to anyone who takes steps to protest in any way that violates the injunction — if they have sufficient knowledge of the injunction,” Rogers said.

What that means for law enforcement is another question. In an internal email Wednesday evening, Clark County Sheriff’s Office Commander Mike McCabe told sergeants that the agency doesn’t intend to enforce the injunction itself.

In the memo, McCabe listed several other potential crimes that may be enforceable when protests grow unruly near schools. In Washington, it’s already illegal to “willfully create a disturbance on school premises during school hours,” and to refuse an officer’s order to leave public property near a school.

“Absent a crime or imminent threat to the schools, CCSO has no role in the enforcement of the civil injunction,” McCabe wrote. “If the injunction is violated by protesters, the remedy for the school is to return to court and seek further guidance from the courts.”

The injunction – like government mandates to wear masks or get vaccinated – is just the latest legal action to test the public’s understanding of what governments can and cannot order.

Vancouver-based civil rights litigator Greg Ferguson said he believed many people are alarmed, but precedent shows that an individual’s rights rarely win out over the collective rights of others.

“It comes back to the age-old question that you can’t yell fire in a crowded movie house. I think people have lost sight of that,” Ferguson said. “The First Amendment is not absolute.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting