It is free speech, but is it appropriate behavior?

2 Jun

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.

But–I 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?

From another story in 2004:

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 neighborhood–intimidation and vandalism–before 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.

10 Responses to “It is free speech, but is it appropriate behavior?”

  1. passionlessDrone June 3, 2010 at 00:30 #

    Sullivan –

    Your restraint is very impressive. I am insane with rage.

    – pD

  2. Sullivan June 3, 2010 at 00:34 #

    pD–

    It took great effort, believe me.

  3. Sullivan June 3, 2010 at 01:06 #

    http://www.disabilityrightsca.org/news/Uzeta07Mar20.htm

    “The group home residents “are afraid to go outside,” said Richard P. Koch, a lawyer representing group home resident Bernice Hernandez. “They were very upset when there was a picket line. These are people who get very emotional. In their experience, if someone doesn’t like them, they might hit them.” ”

    Yes, the neighborhood made the residents picketed the home while the residents were living there.

    That’s free speech. That’s protected. But, is it appropriate? Was it necessary?

  4. Liz Ditz June 3, 2010 at 02:55 #

    Another thing that is really hurtful about this story is that it didn’t have to be this way.

    Almost 30 years ago a group home for intellectually disabled adults was opened in my neighborhood. Homeowners were concerned, but one of the neighborhood leaders decided to make the best of it, and threw a “welcome to the neighborhood” party for the new residents.

    That was just the first step. The home’s care coordinator was able to make connections with the neighbors, so the home residents provided small services such as vacation mail retrieval, yard care for the elderly, and the like.

    They were a great addition to the neighborhood. The home decided to relocate after about 8 years when our local, walking-distance grocery store closed. They found another house within walking distance to downtown, and I believe the group home is still there.

  5. Stephanie June 5, 2010 at 08:17 #

    Your article was well-balanced. That must have been difficult considering how despicable “her” side of the story is. Good job!

  6. livsparents June 5, 2010 at 15:03 #

    Imagine if she’d just use her powers for good…

    Yelling “FIREs happeninmoviethearters” in a crowded movie house, certainly circumvents the issue. But, the second that bigo…person who points out negative inequities based on stereotyped commonalities…steps her toe over the line from offensive to libelous or inciteful speech, the full bore of justice should grind a hole in her dark little hateful haven. How dare she use MY flag to hide HER ignorace, arrogance and prejudice.

  7. Leah June 7, 2010 at 06:50 #

    I have a son who has developmental delays, I am already scared to death that that he will have to be in one of these homes one day, because of the way I have seen some people treated by staff members in these homes. Now I also have to worry that he will live in a neighborhood with a nutcase like that. To want to outlive your child just to ensure they will never be subjected to people and places like the one in this article is a an awful thing to feel.

  8. Mary October 2, 2010 at 17:50 #

    I also have a daughter with developmental delays. The terror that she (Waltz) has & still creates towards our loved ones with special needs is dispicable. Where is the law that prevents this behavior? Yes Livsparents you are right How dare she use our flag to hide her ignorace, arrogance and prejudice.

  9. Mary September 11, 2011 at 04:43 #

    Waltz sign’s are still up, My daughter (special needs) says why we don’t do that. They scare me.

    • Mary June 21, 2012 at 06:06 #

      Yes it is 2012 & signs are still up, how can discrimination like this be stopped?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: