NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Federal Bureaucrats Fought Free Speech

January 8, 1999

Which is of greater importance to Americans: the First Amendment protection of free speech. or the Fair Housing Act (which mandates punishment for discrimination or bias in housing)? Almost all Americans would name the First Amendment. But not a handful of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development bureaucrats, whose preference for the latter has gotten them in hot water.

Here's the story:

  • In 1994, HUD officials investigated three Berkeley, Calif., residents who had peacefully protested planned housing for the homeless in their neighborhood -- which facilities, by the way, HUD planned to locate across the street from several liquor stores.
  • HUD demanded that the three turn over all correspondence, files and minutes of meetings which took place with their equally concerned neighbors.
  • It threatened the group with $100,000 fines if they failed to turn over their written materials.
  • Then, conscious of the bad publicity the bureaucrats were generating, HUD agreed to drop its investigation, but only if the three promised never to speak or write about the homeless project again.

The protesters, represented by the Center for Individual Rights, decided to take the agency to court.

Last month, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that any "reasonable person" would have recognized the investigation was illegal and the actions of the three protestors fell clearly within the long- standing definition of "purely expressive activity" -- with which the government may not interfere. She ruled that HUD's pursuit of the three residents was a patent constitutional violation -- so patent, in fact, that the responsible officials will be held personally liable.

Observers say that housing and poverty advocates routinely intimidate opponents with the charge that opposition to neighborhood social service facilities violates fair housing laws.

Source: Heather Mac Donald, "A Court Restrains HUD's Thought Police," Wall Street Journal, January 8, 1999.


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