FARMINGTON — Two animal rights activists charged with violating Farmington's free speech law for protesting outside Lagoon without a permit sued the city in federal court Tuesday.
The lawsuit alleges the ordinance violates the Utah and U.S. constitutions because it requires a permit for almost any form of public expression and imposes criminal penalties for failing to comply.
"Our reading of the ordinance is that it's pretty clearly unconstitutional," said Stewart Gollen, a lawyer with the Utah Legal Clinic.
The clinic and the ACLU of Utah filed the complaint on behalf of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, Jeremy Beckham and Alexis Levitt. They want a judge to bar Farmington from enforcing the law pending the outcome of the lawsuit and ultimately issue a permanent restraining order.
Farmington, however, suspended enforcement of the ordinance last week and asked the Utah Attorney General's Office for a legal opinion, according to Dave Millheim, city manager. He called the lawsuit "unfortunate" and said it could have been avoided had the groups talked to the city first.
"It sends the wrong message. We absolutely defend and believe people have a right to protest," he said. "We're just frustrated that they flagrantly and intentionally violated our ordinance."
Farmington's "Free Expression Activities" ordinance requires people to get a $50 permit to stage protests on public parks and streets and other government property regardless of the size of the group.
In July, Beckham and three others demonstrated at Lagoon's corporate offices, while Levitt joined about 20 people in a protest near the amusement park. Animal rights activists want the park to close the animal exhibits on its Wild Kingdom Train ride.
Beckham and Levitt were charged with misdemeanors for allegedly protesting without a permit.
But Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said his office is dismissing the charges. He said he agrees that the law has constitutional problems. He said he shared the county's position and that Farmington had suspended the ordinance with the plaintiffs' lawyers, but they sued anyway to further their agenda.
"We're not just going to lie down and take that," Rawlings said. "We'll respond aggressively to the lawsuit and the stunt that the lawsuit is."
Gollen said the law is so broad that two people having a lively political discussion on a sidewalk could be found in violation. It gives city officials too much discretion on who to enforce the rules against, he said.
The charges have had a chilling effect on Beckham, Levitt and others who want to stage more protests outside Lagoon before it closes for the season at the end of October, Gollen said.
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