CITY HALL — Gandhi believed in the power of non-violence to bring about social change. So did The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But City Hall doesn’t view board game creator and inventor Stewart Lamle in the same light.
And neither does a federal magistrate judge, who ruled last week that Lamle — who uses a board game he created to disseminate the philosophy of Farook, a non-violent social and moral way of thinking — is not protected under the First Amendment and needs a business license to sell his game on the Third Street Promenade.
At issue is how City Hall can regulate the public space of the promenade without trampling on civil liberties.
Lamle filed a complaint against City Hall in U.S. District Court in 2004 claming city officials illegally restrained his First Amendment right to spread his philosophy of Farook.
He said the street performer and vending ordinances are unconstitutional and that City Hall should be prohibited from enforcing them. The complaint also requests that Lamle be granted a Santa Monica business license and street performance permit, both of which he has previously been denied. Also, Lamle wants City Hall to agree not to lease public space on the promenade to any groups that are not protected under the First Amendment. Finally, Lamle asked for $1 million in lost wages, embarrassment and emotional distress.
Before he filed suit, Lamle had been slapped with numerous criminal charges for performing on the promenade without a permit, using a table with illegal dimensions, possession of milk crates, which is against California law, and operating a business without a license.
Lemle said he could easily make up to $300 a day selling the Farook game on the promenade and enjoyed interacting with a diverse group of people, from gang members to college professors.
A Santa Monica Superior Court judge dismissed many of the charges, allowing Lamle to proceed with his federal suit.
Lamle was denied a performance permit in 2002 because City Hall considers his game a personal service and not a performance. Under the municipal code, Lamle would have to apply for a license as a vendor.
City officials said Lamle couldn’t get a business license because only a limited number of certain types of vendors — including carts, sidewalk cafes and Farmers’ Market retailers — are allowed to sell their items on the promenade.
Lamle claims it is his right to express himself by playing and selling his game Farook, which is billed as a high-level strategy game with similarities to Chinese checkers and chess.
Unlike the work produced by other artists, the City Attorney’s Office contends the game Lamle sells is not a “tangible art project,” which is what the street performer ordinance dictates. Attorneys for City Hall argued that Lamle doesn’t deserve the same status as an artist who sells a painting or a bumper sticker with a political message.
The magistrate judge, Stephen J. Hillman, ruled that Farook do not fall under the scope of the First and Fourteenth Amendments protecting speech, arguing that the game did not convey any deeper message than simply how to play and win the game itself.
The fact that the game comes with information on the meaning of Farook, which is “one who distinguishes right from wrong” in Arabic, is irrelevant, the judge ruled.
“Without [Lamle’s] explanation and discussion of the philosophy of Farook, one could play the game and remain ignorant of the philosophy,” Judge Hillman wrote.
Lamle countered, saying Farook teaches players how to negotiate and dominate, “but nothing gets destroyed, nothing gets killed. And that’s critical to the philosophy.
“The philosophy is to improve your power, improve your freedom, try to go ahead and box the opponent in with less power and freedom, and in non-violent ways, try to achieve one of many potential goals.”
Lamle, who is representing himself in the case, is an inventor who holds dozens of patents, several in the field of games. Based on his experiences as a news correspondent in Vietnam during the 1970s, he said he began developing a way of thinking he called the “Philosphy of Farook.” According to this philosophy, human progress can be well served if people seek to attain goals by following certain “negotiation-oriented, non-violent, multi-step algorithms that form a new type of high-level game play.”
“This isn’t bowling, this is an exchange of ideas,” Lamle said Tuesday during an interview from a restaurant in New Jersey. “It’s a somewhat abstract way of expressing these ideas, but then again so are Jackson Pollock’s paintings.”
Lamle sees his game as a fun way to promote peaceful resolution and believes spreading that philosophy is more important now then ever before as corporate greed spreads and the threat of terrorism grows.
This is not the first time Lamle has represented himself against a more well-equipped legal team. While he is taking on City Hall’s best and brightest, including City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, it is nothing compared to the force he faced in battling the world’s largest toy company, Mattel Inc., which owns the brands Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price.
In 2005, he won a multi-million dollar breach of contract claim against Mattel. The non-lawyer fought for over seven years against a team of lawyers from the nation’s largest pure litigation law firm. The ruling at the U.S. Court of Appeals gave Lamle the right to have a jury trial in federal court. Lamle said he received an undisclosed amount of money from the toy giant in a settlement that year that he described as “huge.”
Lamle plans to continue fighting City Hall and will file an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court if the district judge accepts the magistrate’s recommended ruling. A magistrate judge was called to review the case since Lamle is representing himself. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.