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Animal Shelter Volunteers Win First Round In Fight For First Amendment Rights

INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS - Animal shelter volunteers have been suspended and/or terminated for speaking to the press about poor conditions at City animal shelters. 

Press reports about conditions at the shelters, based on interviews with shelter volunteers including in the Los Angeles Times, have resulted in City Council actions to improve conditions at the animal shelters and promises to carry out reforms.  Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Animal Services Department (LAAS) has terminated some of the whistleblower volunteers who brought about these improvements in conditions for the animals.  Volunteers’ ability to expose conditions at the animal shelters is essential to improving conditions for the animals. 

The Animal Services Volunteers Association (ASVA) was recently formed to protect the Constitutional rights of volunteers at City animal shelters to speak to the press about conditions at the shelters without retaliation or fear of retaliation.  Its members are current and terminated volunteers at City animal shelters; the Association is not controlled by or affiliated with LAAS.  

The Association’s attorney, James A. Frieden, sent a Cease and Desist Letter to LAAS and City officials on October 11, 2022, citing violations of volunteers’ constitutionally protected free speech rights; the letter can be seen here.  The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office responded on October 28, which can be seen here.  

The City Attorney’s Office, on behalf of LAAS, promised to revise its volunteer agreement and related materials to make clear that volunteers are not prohibited from speaking to the press or posting on social media regarding conditions at the City shelters, as long as they do so as private individuals.  (I wrote this article as a private individual, not on behalf of the Animal Services Department.) 

In its response to the Cease and Desist Letter, the City Attorney’s Office (of course) denied that LAAS has been violating the Constitutional rights of volunteers by making them sign a waiver of their right to talk to the media, and denied that it has retaliated against volunteers for doing so.  However, the letter stated: 

“The Department’s requirement that a volunteer must receive authorization before speaking to the media and direct all media inquiries to appropriate Department staff applies to situations where the volunteer is speaking or purporting to speak in an official capacity on behalf of the City/Department.  This requirement is not a waiver of any constitutional rights – it does not prohibit a volunteer from speaking to the media or using social media as a private individual . . .”  [emphasis added] 

The City also tacitly admitted that its current rule, which appears to be a blanket prohibition on volunteers speaking to the press, is unconstitutional: 

“[T]he Department is revising portions of its volunteer agreement and related materials to specify that volunteers must receive authorization [only] before interacting with the media when doing so on behalf of the City/Department or when giving that impression. The revised materials will suggest that when speaking in their private capacity, a volunteer should avoid any appearance that they are doing so on behalf of the City/Department. The Department is already in the process of revising and updating its volunteer agreement and related materials and expects to complete this process within a few weeks. In addition, the Department will be sending a communication to its volunteers explaining the above. These revisions and clarifications should resolve any misunderstanding that a volunteer is somehow prohibited from speaking as a private citizen.” [emphasis added] 

ASVA attorney James A. Frieden stated that he will monitor the City’s compliance with these promises, to make sure the Constitutional rights of volunteers are protected. 

The letter from the City Attorney’s Office does not say that the Department of Animal Services will reinstate the volunteers who were terminated in violation of their First Amendment rights.  Instead, it reiterated some of the pretexts that were used to terminate volunteers after they spoke to the press or posted on social media.  Mr. Frieden stated that ASVA will be working to have those volunteers reinstated.  ASVA issued a statement about its partial victory in this matter which stated: “It is great that LAAS is recognizing the Constitutional rights of volunteers.  We look forward to working cooperatively with LAAS in the future for the benefit of the animals in the City’s shelters. … It’s for the Animals!” 

 

(Jeffrey Mausner (www.mausnerlaw.com/ ) is on the Executive Committee of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils (VANC) where he serves as the Liaison to the Los Angeles Animal Services Department; he is 2nd Vice President of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council and Chair of its Animal Welfare Committee, and a Volunteer at the West Valley Animal Shelter.  He was previously a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate and is now a Budget Representative. He is a retired attorney and law school professor and was formerly a Federal Prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department, where he received numerous awards from the Attorney General of the U.S.  Jeff is a Featured Writer for CityWatch.  This article is written in his private individual capacity, not on behalf of the Animal Services Department or any of the entities mentioned above.)