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It is free speech, but is it appropriate behavior?

Posted Jun 02 2010 3:15pm

A good friend sent me a link to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, Housewife awarded $110,000 after alleging government infringed on her free speech rights . At first glance I was wondering, why send this to me? Then I read the story:

A Norco housewife whose protests against a group home for the developmentally disabled drew the scrutiny of housing discrimination investigators, has settled a lawsuit alleging the government inquiry infringed on her right to free speech.

Julie Waltz, 64, agreed this month to settle her case in exchange for $110,000 and the promise that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing will establish a “Julie Waltz First Amendment Policy.”

Yes, Ms. Waltz protested a group home and, it appears, the government acted inappropriately in response. She sued, the government settled, and she got a nice big check. I am a firm believer in the first amendment, even when it is used by people taking positions I abhor.

ButI will also state that every right comes with a responsibility. The Freedom of Speech, the First Amendment, comes with a very serious responsibilities. If I were to exercise my freedom of speech, I would state that Ms. Waltz has acted inappropriately and irresponsibly. She has skirted the laws and victimized the disabled.

Ms. Waltz, as you might imagine, disagrees:

In an interview this week, Waltz said, “I wouldn’t say my speech is offensive, but even if it is, the very speech someone says is offensive is the speech we need to protect.”

Offensive speech is not the only speech we need to protect. Speech by the disadvantaged, the weak, that needs to be protected as well.

After reading the LA Times story, I went through the news archives for stories about Ms. Waltz. What I found was not pretty.

Ms. Waltz has taken on a 6 year campaign against a group home next door to her own home. In 2004, when Ms. Waltz read the mission statement for the then proposed home, she keyed in on two statements. The residents might include people with “physical aggression” and/or “sexual inappropriateness” and “fire setting”.

Armed with this, Ms. Waltz led a neighborhood campaign which sewed fear “rape” and “violence” should the group home be opened. She has continued this campaign long after the home has opened.

Here are clips from a story in 2004, where it is clear that the atmosphere in the neighborhood was decidedly antagonistic :

Gary Durham, whose home on Bluff Street has been for sale for nearly two months, said he doesn’t see a peaceful resolution for the community.

People have been knocking over the mailbox and doing doughnuts on the front lawn of the group home, he said.

“The situation is escalating,” he said. “I don’t think the (group home) residents will ever be safe walking out their front door in this neighborhood. They have no idea what they’ve gotten into here. I just wish I could sell my home and get out of here.”

(for anyone who wonders: “doing donuts” means driving a car in tight circles very fast, tearing up the lawn).

Ms. Waltz showed a lack of compassion for the members of the group home:

“We have the right to be heard,” Waltz said. “No one will help us because they think we’re bigots, but I’m tired of being called a bigot just because I care about my neighborhood.”

Waltz said she’s not bothered that some of the signs that have gone up in the neighborhood are menacing in tone. Some have said, “Freaks get out,” “Rednecks unite” and “Safe living. Relocate.”

“If they feel threatened, they know how we feel,” she said. “If they don’t feel like this is a safe neighborhood for their clients, maybe they shouldn’t open a home here.

The comment appears to this reader to be a major sidestep by Ms. Waltz. Rather that accept responsibility for her actions, she has put the blame on the group home residents.

Another story from that time points to the fear mongering used in the campaign against the group home:

The signs along Broken Arrow Street speak loudly: “Your wife & kids are potential rape victims thanks to the government” and “Do you feel safe? We don’t.”

and

The signs include such slogans as “No more! Liar Group Homes” and “Pedophiles, rapists & molesters all display sexual-inappropriateness.”

Note the clever use of language. “Pedophiles, rapists & molesters all display sexual inappropriateness”. They don’t call the group home members “rapists” or “pedophiles” or “molesters” directly. But who is really fooled as to what the message they are trying to convey is?

At times, the fear has given way to hostility and violence, with unknown vandals throwing bricks through the planned group home’s windows, tearing up the lawn, running over a mailbox and snaking a running garden hose through a roof-top opening, which caused the collapse of a ceiling.

Employees and people delivering appliances to the planned group home have been threatened, and neighbors have hoisted dozens of protest signs – some with such strongly worded slogans as “Those people are violent – goes both ways” and “Freaks get out.”

In 2005, the garage door to the home was vandalized with a swastika and the words “get out now”.

During the night Friday, someone threw eggs at the home and vandalized it with a magic marker, sheriff’s officials said. Last summer, the same home had its lawn and mailbox damaged.

A story from 2007 discusses Ms. Waltz again, this time from the perspective of her free speech rights. Ms. Waltz is shown in that story standing proudly next to the signs on her lawn stating “Sexual Inappropriate Fire Setter Facility” and “I.R.C. Does Place Sex Offenders”. (I.R.C. is the Inland Regional Center, which administers services for the developmentally disabled for the California Department of Developmental Services)

Every right comes with responsibility. Freedom of speech comes with a heavy responsibility. Ms. Waltz is exercising her free speech rights. She is staying within the law by not directly claiming that the women in the group home are “sex offenders” or that they are “fire setters”. Again, the language is carefully chosen. It skirts the law and delivers the message at the same time.

To this reader’s eye, she is acting very irresponsibly in her choice of words. She is, in my view, creating an environment of hostility and fear.

In 2007, residents were still afraid for the market value of their homes. Some were having problems selling their homes:

The same campaign that drove the group home out is driving potential buyers away, said Leslie Anderson, whose own home on Bluff Street has been on the market for weeks.

“The situation over there has gotten out of hand,” Anderson said. “I finally got a tentative offer, but it was withdrawn when they drove down Broken Arrow and saw all the signs.”

Anderson said her real estate agent was verbally accosted by Broken Arrow residents because they didn’t recognize her car.

Ask yourself this: did the neighborhood residents think that the real estate agent was a resident of the group home? Obviously not. Were people put off by the group home or, as the resident put it, the signs?

If there is devaluation of the home prices in that neighborhood, the residents need to shoulder their own share of the responsibility.

Next to her American and Confederate flags, Waltz has plastered the outside of her house with signs protesting the group home.

Flying the Confederate flag is protected by free speech laws. But, let’s face it: the Confederacy was fighting to protect their rights to enslave African Americans. For many in the United States, the Confederate Flag is a form of hate speech. Ms. Waltz does not exactly give herself credibility by flying that flag.

Can the residents really expect to push the group home out? It turns out that this group home was not the first planned for this neighborhood. Another 2004 story discusses how a group home was relocated after the residents’ reaction went as far as vandalism:

The owners of a group home for the mentally disabled have decided not to open in Norco for fear that their clients would suffer abuse from an openly hostile community, company officials said Thursday.

Officials with Marjan Homes Inc. said they no longer feel safe opening a home for four mentally disabled adults on Broken Arrow Street after employees reported being threatened by neighbors and after the vacant facility was twice vandalized, said City Manager Jeff Allred.

Keep that in mind when you read this next clip. This is from the LA Times in 2007, when Ms. Waltz brought her freedom of speech complaint forward:

Over Waltz’s objections, the home received state funds to open in 2005. Waltz said that when her new neighbors arrived, they hurled rocks and obscenities at her. She and some neighbors then placed signs in their yards urging the group home to “get out” and warned neighbors that “your wife and kids are potential rape victims”driving the residents inside to tears, according to their advocates.

“She and some neighbors then placed signs…” Ms. Waltz makes it seem like it was only after the group home was opened and the members acted inappropriately that the protests started. She conveniently leaves out the vandalism and hatred that kept one home from opening. She conveniently leaves out the actions of her neighborhoodintimidation and vandalismbefore the present group home opened.

There are good, honorable people who have fought to protect the freedom of speech in the United States. Julie Waltz, proud of her victory, is not one of those people.

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