La Center proclaimed May as Jewish American Heritage Month at its April 26 meeting, focusing specifically on antisemitism around the country, but the issue for some residents hits closer to home.
A house bearing Nazi imagery in the city has concerned some of the city’s inhabitants.
The proclamation defined antisemitism as “an evil that threatens not only people who subscribe to the Jewish faith, but all people, no matter their creed or background.”
“The City of La Center and city officials stand against all forms of racism, prejudice, bigotry and hate, including antisemitism,” then Mayor Elizabeth Cerveny stated in the proclamation.
The proclamation came after citizens voiced concern at a March 22 council meeting about a house in La Center that featured spray-painted swastikas and a “Reichskriegsflagge,” or a German Imperial war flag, with the symbol on a flagpole.
During the March meeting, community member Emily Hancock said she represented a number of citizens who were concerned about the house. Hancock said she believed law enforcement was called to the property multiple times, but they did not take any action, “citing free speech.”
Although being able to fly the flag with a swastika does fall under free speech, Hancock said the spray-painting of the house appeared to go against city code.
Apart from code violations, Hancock said the greater issue is the city was aware of the issue, but had done nothing about it. She added there was a sentiment from community members that inaction from the city could be construed as tacit acceptance of the antisemitic nature of the display.
“We hope that you prove to us this is not the case, but if that is what’s happening here we will ensure that citizens are made aware of what our local government stands for, and will continue our activism until an appropriate resolution for this matter can be reached,” Hancock said.
City Attorney Bronson Potter acknowledged the symbols on the property were “despicable … disgusting,” but he advised the city not to take action. Potter pointed to a number of cases in both the United States and Washington Supreme Courts.
“You can’t regulate speech based on the content of the speech. That’s a violation of the First Amendment,” Potter said. “Even though we don’t like your speech, we can’t regulate it just because we don’t like it, because then whatever speech are we going to say you can’t engage in?”
Because taking action was “clearly content driven,” Potter said, “you’re just going to be setting yourself up for a civil lawsuit, liability, in doing so.”
Potter said graffiti isn’t explicitly defined in city code, but noted in other municipalities it is defined as marking public property or that of another property owner. Graffiti doesn’t apply to an individual marking their own property.
“We could not show evidence of this speech causing fights. … It has to be really, not just hurt feelings or hurt viewpoints or hurt values, it’s got to be physical harm in order to justify the regulation,” Potter said.
Bill Soehl, the son of the property owner, said the issue stemmed from frustrations his father had. Soehl said the placement of a new sidewalk in front of his father’s house made the driveway unusable.
When his father did not receive a favorable resolution, he went for publicity.
“Apparently he’s being heard now, and it’s being taken in, all out of context and in the wrong way,” Soehl said.
He said if the city could get the public works department to resolve the issue, “I’m sure this (problem) would all go away.”
Cerveny and the city’s public works Director Bryan Kast met with the elder Soehl to try to find a resolution.
“There’s much more behind the scenes than any of us really recognized,” Cerveny said.
That resolution is still ongoing, she said.