DENVER — Protesters took to airports across the country, including Denver International Airport, after President Donald Trump ordered a ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Now, the city of Denver and two Denver police officers might pay the price for trying to shut down the protests after a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed.
The day President Trump signed the executive order, protests erupted inside the atrium of the main terminal of DIA and outside the complex. Those protests continued for two straight weekends.
During that time, protesters said airport officials, Denver Police Cmdr. Tony Lopez and Sgt. Virginia Quinones tried to silence their right to speak their minds.
“We were nervous. It’s a great inconvenience to be taken to jail,” protester Nazli Mcdonnell of Colorado Springs said.
But McDonnell and fellow protester Eric Verlo say the airport also became a place of hostility.
“We were approached by police officers who asserted we did not have a right to be here because we did not have a permit,” McDonnell said.
The city said they needed a permit to peacefully protest the travel ban on certain immigrants. But that permit requires it be pulled seven days in advance.
“Stop doing anything that can be construed as free speech without a permit,” Lopez said on a video captured by a protester and uploaded to YouTube.
So a civil rights lawsuit for violation of their free speech was filed.
Civil rights attorney David Lane, who filed the lawsuit, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unreasonable time restrictions on getting a permit is unconstitutional.
“I know what my rights are. This is a public space. And we had a sergeant tell us this was not a public space. Some people take for granted what police say as true. And we know it wasn’t,” Verlo said.
Police and workers told protesters they were violating airport rules. They claimed the primary purpose of the airport is to ensure the safety, security and movement of passengers.
“The U.S. Supreme Court held previously that you can’t eliminate all free speech in an airport. You can have reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. But you cannot eliminate all free speech,” Lane said.
Protesters say they were in a public space, where others held signs too, including lawyers offering pro bono work for immigrants impacted by the executive order, limousine drivers trying to make contact with clients and families welcoming home military members.
“We can debate that in court. But you are going to be arrested if you don’t’ stop immediately. Do you understand?” Lopez is recorded saying to a protester.
“We don’t feel it’s appropriate for police to have discretion to decide which signs can be held and which signs cannot be held,” said McDonnell, who emigrated to the U.S. from Turkey in 1986.
“(Lopez) said you can go have your protest over on Tower Road because all DIA property is off-limits to you. It’s like telling Martin Luther King Jr. not to march from Selma to Birmingham. You can have it in a cornfield in Kansas. It’s ridiculous,” Lane said.
Through the lawsuit, protesters hope they can return DIA to a more welcoming place, like America has always been throughout history.
“It’s important we extend that welcome mat and welcome everybody,” Verlo said.
“Denver police and the airport worked to balance the rights of individuals to express themselves with the need to protect passenger and airport operations,” the Denver Police Department said in a statement. “It’s important to note that no one was arrested during these activities.”
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare the city violated the constitutional rights of protesters and to prevent the city from interfering in future peaceful protests.