Victory for California free speech

State housing agency agrees to “Julie Waltz First Amendment Policy”

Washington, D.C.—California resident Julie Waltz’ long fight for free speech for opponents of state subsidized housing policies came to a victorious conclusion today, when the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing agreed to implement the “Julie Waltz First Amendment Policy.”

The new policy prohibits the Department from investigating citizens for housing discrimination solely on the basis of free speech activity, including speaking at public meetings, writing and displaying flyers, signs, or newspaper articles critical of public housing projects, even if they appear to advocate discriminatory policies or positions.

The new policy sets forth complaint handling procedures that must be followed by Department personnel to ensure that citizens are not subjected to long investigations that have the effect of stifling public criticism of housing policies. The Department agreed to adopt the new policy, seek to have it codified in the California Code of Regulations, publish it on its website and train employees in its use.

The dispute grew out of a 2006 housing discrimination investigation of Waltz that lasted for nearly a year. Waltz had posted yard signs and expressed opposition in other peaceful ways to the state’s efforts to place sex offenders and other individuals with a history of behavioral problems in residential group homes, including homes in Phelan, CA, and one next door to her home in Norco, CA. Despite the fact that the complaint did not allege specific facts constituting a violation of housing discrimination laws nor any specific facts that would show that Waltz had illegally threatened group home residents, Department officials inexplicably continued to investigate her.

During the year-long investigation, state investigators told Waltz that her speech violated state fair housing laws, requested that she refrain from her speech activities, and threatened her with prosecution. An investigator also told her that the investigation would end if she removed signs from her yard objecting to the next-door group home as well as signs posted by other people in her neighborhood. Waltz declined to remove the signs.

Waltz sued in 2008, seeking an injunction prohibiting DFEH officials from engaging in investigations designed only to punish individuals for speaking out against government housing policies. In addition, Waltz sued Lillianita Brumfield, who handled her case, and other officials in their individual capacities for damages for violating Waltz’s federal constitutional rights.

Waltz commented, “I am pleased that the Department has recognized the need to protect the free speech rights of ordinary citizens to criticize and question housing policies without being made the subject of prolonged discrimination investigations. It is my hope that should any future investigations of this type occur, government officials will recognize that their authority does not supersede the United States Constitution. God Bless America.”

Waltz was represented by the Los Angeles, CA firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, which donated its time pro bono and the Center for Individual Rights.

“This is an important victory for free speech. The new policy will ensure that citizens are not subjected to housing discrimination investigations solely because they openly express viewpoints the government does not like,” said Henry Weissmann, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP who worked on the case.

CIR President Terence Pell commented, “This was an egregious case of housing investigators using their authority to harass and intimidate a citizen whose only crime was speaking out in opposition to government policies. It would be difficult to find a clearer violation of the First Amendment.”

CIR has successfully represented California residents in other cases involving the misuse of housing discrimination laws to silence criticism of government housing policy. In two earlier cases, Affordable Housing v. Fresno (2006) and White v. Lee (2000) the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made unequivocally clear that citizens may not be investigated or sued for housing discrimination solely because of their public speech concerning government housing policies. In both cases, the court found individual officials liable in their personal capacities for violating the clear constitutional rights of CIR’s clients.