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. …