WASHINGTON, D.C. — In late August, federal housing officials dropped an investigation of three Berkeley, Calif., residents who protested the renovation of a hotel for low-income housing, and in early September announced guidelines designed to prevent probes of activities protected by the First Amendment.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines were written in response to pressure from American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Stephen Shapiro and members of the press who contended that people who peacefully protested housing projects in their neighborhoods should not be prosecuted for exercising their First Amendment rights.
At an early September news conference, HUD’s Roberta Achtenberg, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal employment, told reporters that HUD will continue to investigate complaints of conduct or speech that is “coercive, threatening, intimidating, or harassing,” but not complaints about “neighbors involved in a peaceful protest,” according to Associated Press reports.
Since the Berkeley case, HUD has identified 34 complaints involving free-speech issues, Achtenberg told AP at the press conference. She said 11 have been dismissed under the new guidelines and the rest will be reviewed.
The guidelines advise staff to use public documents when investigating complaints concerning speech, rather than conducting personal interviews. The guidelines also require plans for investigations to be cleared by HUD headquarters if they involve free speech. HUD will not accept complaints when the protesters are “clearly” acting within their First Amendment rights, but the agency will investigate further when the distinction is not clear-cut, the guidelines said.
Also, HUD will continue to investigate those who have taken their protests against group homes to court.
Prompting these new guidelines were several cases of HUD probes into neighborhood groups opposed to group homes for the disabled in their local areas.
“Disabilities” has recently been defined by federal courts to include addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and AIDS.
The most publicized case began in Berkeley, Calif., last year when neighborhood organizers protested the renovation of a local hotel into low-income housing for recovering alcohol and substance abusers.
Housing advocates filed a complaint nearly a year ago against the Berkeley neighborhood group formed by Alexandra White, Joseph Deringer and Richard Graham, claiming the three violated the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act by interfering with the rights of the recovering alcoholics to get a fair chance to obtain low-cost housing.
The 1988 amendments were designed to protect the rights of the disabled.
In its investigation, HUD demanded that White, Deringer and Graham disclose all documents written about the project, including minutes of meetings and lists of members or face fines of up to $50,000, the New York Times reported.
On behalf of the Berkeley residents, and of Manhattan residents facing a similar probe, the ACLU sent a letter August 16 to HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, arguing that the investigation of alleged housing discrimination violated the residents’ First Amendment right to free speech.
According to Achtenberg, the housing authority’s investigation determined later that day that the Berkeley residents’ actions were protected by the First Amendment. The New York complaint made by Community Access was dropped two weeks later, the New York Times reported.
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