Free Speech vs. Discrimination

By Roberta Achtenberg The Washington Post | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 29, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Free Speech vs. Discrimination

Roberta Achtenberg The Washington Post, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Earlier this month the Department of Housing and Urban Development concluded an investigation into a controversial housing discrimination complaint in Berkeley, Calif. Fair-housing advocates there alleged that a group of private citizens had violated the housing rights of people with disabilities when they opposed plans to turn the Bel Air Motel on University Avenue in downtown Berkeley into low-income housing for recovering alcoholics and substance-abusers. The advocates' complaint was filed under the Fair Housing Act.

HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) investigated the complaint, as we are required to do by law. Unfortunately, the investigation sparked charges that HUD was attempting to squelch the project foes' constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech.

Following a thorough inquiry, HUD found that the facts developed in its investigation did not support a finding that discrimination had occurred. The Berkeley citizens acted within their First Amendment, free-speech rights.

The First Amendment's guarantee of citizens' rights to speak out on issues of public importance is one of the sacred pillars of our system. Under no circumstances would we consider ordinary political activity, speech or organizing a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Furthermore, every attempt is being made to ensure that HUD's inquiries do not have a chilling effect on political activity or the exercise of free speech.

The fact remains, however, that HUD also has an obligation to protect citizens against discrimination in housing. When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and later amended it in 1988, it said it is illegal to "coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere" with any person's exercise of fair housing rights under the act, and explicitly stated that "harassment of persons because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin" could be found unlawful.

Congress has said, in other words, that the First Amendment does not protect all forms of speech when it comes to housing discrimination. For example, the First Amendment does not protect a landlord or a neighbor who employs intimidation or verbal abuse to discourage someone from moving into housing because of his race, religion or disability. Fair housing rights were held paramount last month when an administrative law judge imposed a $300,000 fine on a woman who engaged in a "relentless campaign of intimidation" to force African-Americans out of public housing in Vidor, Texas.

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