Victory for free speech in California housing case

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.

CIR sues housing discrimination officials

On April 1, 2008, the Center for Individual Rights filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against several officials of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) on behalf of California resident Julie Waltz.

The suit alleges that state officials used a housing discrimination investigation to stifle criticism of its policies relating to the placement of sex offenders in residential neighborhoods. It seeks to enjoin the use of such investigations for this purpose as well as monetary damages from one of the officials involved.

Abusive Investigation

In 2006, DFEH officials began investigating Waltz solely because Waltz’s had exercised her rights of free speech under the First Amendment.  Waltz had posted yard signs and expressed opposition in other peaceful ways to government’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 (the “Broken Arrow Home”).

Despite the fact that officials knew that Waltz had done nothing more than exercise her First Amendment rights, they kept the investigation open for nearly a year, well beyond the time needed for any reasonable investigation.

Threats and Coercion 

During the year-long state investigation, officials told Waltz that her speech violated state fair housing laws, requested that she refrain from her speech activities, threatened her with prosecution, and used the media to characterize her as a discriminator and a violator of the California Fair Housing and Employment Act.

As a result, the movement opposing group homes such as the Broken Arrow Home, of which Waltz was an active member, lost adherents and was unable to gain new supporters.  Other individuals were unwilling to risk being the subject of DFEH investigation and prosecution solely for opposing government policies.

CIR’s record of challenging the abusive use of discrimination investigations

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 it 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.

CIR is representing Waltz pro bono together with the Los Angeles firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

Case Status: Victory. Case settled on favorable terms.

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