ACLU Challenges "No Free Speech Zone" at San Diego Welfare Offices

January 4, 2001 12:00 am

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SAN DIEGO — The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego filed a complaint today in federal court on behalf of a parents’ advocacy organization that has been restricted from distributing literature and talking with welfare applicants at two county welfare offices.

“”The constitution protects everyone’s right to communicate with others in a lawful and non-disruptive manner,”” said Guylyn Cummins, an ACLU volunteer attorney. “County welfare offices may not select certain groups to express their ideas on government property while silencing others just because they may not like what that group has to say.”

The ACLU argues in the complaint that the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency violated the Supportive Parents Information Network’s (SPIN) constitutional right to free speech when it prohibited the organization from providing welfare recipients with information about their rights.

SPIN assists low-income families who are striving to achieve self-sufficiency, through education and advocacy of their rights and responsibilities with respect to public assistance. SPIN distributes informational fliers, provides counsel to applicants in agency waiting rooms, and accompanies applicants to appointments as legal advisors.

“We believe parents who are applying for benefits need all the information they can get in order to make good choices that will help them achieve self-sufficiency,” said SPIN executive director Joni Halpern.

In its complaint, the ACLU said SPIN believes it is being discriminated against because its assistance often results in low income families receiving benefits that would otherwise be denied by the county, causing the agency to lose out on incentive rewards offered for reducing the level of benefits awarded.

In July 2000, SPIN staff members and volunteers were forced to discontinue their activities and leave the El Cajon and Chula Vista agencies when trying to display their literature in the agencies’ waiting rooms. SPIN was told by an administrator that their literature had to first be reviewed and approved before it was distributed.

SPIN staff members were also harassed when they attempted to engage in legal picketing earlier that day and the next, protesting the treatment of public assistance families by agency representatives, the ACLU complaint said.

Other not-for-profit groups have engaged in similar activities without being blocked by agency representatives, the ACLU noted.

Although county representatives have been asked repeatedly to cite the written authority for blocking SPIN’s activities, they have yet to produce any such policy. Instead, the ACLU said, county officials have cited “unwritten” policies giving county staff the unilateral authority to determine which information is appropriate for benefits applicants receive.

The ACLU lawsuit, SPIN v. County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, case number 01 Civil 0007, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

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