ACLU Restores Free Speech to San Diego Welfare Offices

August 2, 2001 12:00 am

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Thursday, August 2, 2001

SAN DIEGO – Under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, San Diego County Health and Human Services has agreed to stop violating the free speech rights of a parents’ advocacy organization that had been restricted from distributing literature and talking with welfare applicants at two county welfare offices.

The agreement is part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed in January by the ACLU of San Diego on behalf of the Supportive Parents Information Network (SPIN), which helps low-income families obtain benefits that would otherwise be denied by the County.

“”The County has acknowledged that welfare offices are public property, not the private domain of agency administrators,”” said Jordan Budd, managing attorney of the ACLU of San Diego. “”Accordingly, the agency is not entitled to censor what information its clients receive or to dictate from whom they can get assistance with their cases.””

Last July, SPIN staff and volunteers were barred from the two County welfare offices when they tried to distribute informational fliers, speak with public assistance applicants in waiting rooms, and act as advisors to applicants at their appointments. SPIN’s members were also harassed when they engaged in legal picketing.

In contrast to the treatment that SPIN received, officials from San Diego’s County Health and Human Services permitted other organizations to counsel applicants and distribute materials.

“”County welfare offices may not select certain groups to express their ideas on government property while silencing another just because they may not like what that group has to say,”” said Budd.

Under the settlement agreement, SPIN members will have free access to agency offices and the County will not interfere with SPIN’s communications with applicants for public assistance as long as it does not substantially interfere with the agency’s business, or place people at risk of immediate physical harm.

“”This agreement is a real win for parents struggling to take care of their families,”” said Joni Halpern, executive director of SPIN. “”Low-income people who are applying for benefits need all the information they can get in order to make good choices.””

The case is SPIN v. County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, No., 01 Civil 0007, filed January 4, 2001, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

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